Psychology: What Mental Characteristics make a Top Athlete?

Your mentality to training and racing plays a crucial role in helping you to achieve your athletic goals. A common saying we like to use that helps differentiate the different demands of training vs. racing is that training is about doing what necessary and racing is about seeing what’s possible. Many top coaches and athletes alike will often quote a 90% physical/10% mental approach to training, before switching to a 10% physical/90% mental approach to racing. So if you’ve done the physical work in training, what mental characteristics will help you translate this into a PB performance on race day?

The purpose of this blog is to assess the psychological aspects of top athletes to help understand the mental rationale behind their success.

Last year, our coaching manager attended the inaugural IAAF World Junior Coaching Conference where the mindset of top US Olympic Track & Field Athletes were reported. From over 180 questions derived from two inventory questionnaires; the Learning Styles Inventory (assessing how athletes learn) AND Coaching Styles Inventory (measuring the distinct factors for competitive success). The top 5 factors were as follows:

  1. Great attitude


  1. performed regular self talk
  2. expected to perform well
  3. showcased self confidence
  1. Effort Level


  1. were willing to makes changes
  2. were compliant to changes
  3. committed to these changes
  1. Concentration


  1. demonstrated the ability to narrow their focus as their goal became closer
  2. showed presence of focus, allowing them to focus on the right thing at the right time
  3. were mentally quiet, allowing them to shut out certain things when required
  1. Hate to Lose


  1. had a will to win
  2. had a competitive orientation
  3. knew what they were up against
  1. Killer Instinct


  1. showed an ability to fight
  2. were responsible for their own actions
  3. had the ability to recover

To then understand what seperated the very best, of the initial pool of Olympic representatives, only Olympic medal winners were considered, with the results altered as below:

The athletes…

  1. Hate to lose
  2. Had a great attitude
  3. Possessed a killer instinct

The rationale behind this change to the order of importance is the fact that competence and skill mastery (the key for top performance in any sport) is underlined by effort and willingness to change. It was concluded that those who listened to their team (coach, manager and medical team) and were able to implement the appropriate or recommended changes were able to achieve greater success.

One other useful strategy to achieve your goals was to regularly verbalise what you want using the term “I will” and not “ I can’t”.

We trust you now have a greater understanding as to how you can translate your physical work in training into race day success, by providing an insight to the use of various mental strategies. If you wish to know more about this topic, or anything to do with your running training, please get in touch with our expert coaching team who are ready to assist you towards your next running goal! Please email or see our website:

Running Regards,

Team Front Runner