Is there such a thing as a personality of a successful sports person?

I have always been interested in how people’s brains works and why we behave like we do, so at college I picked psychology as one of my AS choices. Even after not so great 1st year results, I continued it to A level. Mainly because I was told I needed at least two “academic” A levels so history had to stay and the choice was between dropping Art & Design or Sports Science, so the paintbrushes got put away! Luckily my A level results went much better and I found myself at Aston University doing a combined honours degree in Business Studies and Psychology. Whizzy forward to final year and my psychology dissertation. Against the recommendation of my lecturer I made up for dropping sports science at AS level and wanted to write my final piece on sports psychology. We hadn’t been taught any sports psychology and the rules for our dissertation were that it had to align to something we had been taught – something to do with showing sitting in lectures had been worthwhile!. Having been taught personality, I decided to research into whether personality traits are efficient predictors of athletes reaching elite levels in sport. The whole dissertation was nearly 8,000 words, so this is going to be the very short version!

front cover dissertation

What athletes go through to reach elite levels is truly amazing and the winners list of the BBC Sports personality of the year showcases this. For example the 2000 winner, Sir Steve Redgrave, winning gold medals at five consecutive Olympic Games having overcome being diagnosed with ulcerative colitis in 1992 and Type II diabetes in 1997. So I wanted to find out are there personality traits that enable individuals to reach this elite level?


There are so many different theories of personality, but for my own sanity and to show I was using something I had been taught, I focused on trait theories of personality. Including the big three traits: neuroticism, psychoticism and extraversion (Eysenck & Eysenck, 1985), the big five: neuroticism, conscientiousness, agreeableness, extraversion and openness (Costa & McCrae, 1992) and mental toughness: comprising of confidence, control, commitment, challenge and self-belief (Jones, Hanton & Connaughton, 2007).

By systematically reviewing 39 relevant articles, I found the correlations identified between the Big 3, Big 5 and mental toughness traits strongly supported the role of these traits enabling athletes from a wide range of sports to reach an elite level (told you this was the short version!). This evidence also backed up the definition of mental toughness by Jones (2002), that “having the natural or developed psychological edge that enables you to generally cope better than your opponents with the many demands that sport places on a performer; specifically be more consistent and better than your opponents in remaining determined, focused, confident and in control under pressure” (Jones, 2002 p. 209). As low levels of neuroticism facilitates stable consistency and control, high conscientiousness maintains the determined and focused attitude of the athlete and their confidence is driven by the tough-minded characteristics of their psychoticism and agreeable traits. The unshakeable self-belief of elite athletes that they are better than their opponents and can win is maintained by all these traits.

In overview elite athletes were characterised as rating low on the neuroticism scale and high on the scales of conscientiousness, psychoticism and agreeableness. Extraversion appeared to only have a significant impact on team athletes, with those rating higher on the scale reaching elite levels in sport. Confidence, control, commitment, challenge and self-belief were all recognised as vital components of mental toughness in sport and central to an athlete’s ability to reach the highest levels of competition and win (Gould, Dieffenbach & Moffett, 2002). Concluding that these personality traits are efficient predictors of athletes attaining elite levels in sport.

I still love psychology and continue to research it and have just finished reading an amazing book called BODY MIND MASTERY by Dan Millman.

mind body mastery

It’s all about the path to success through training and the integration of the body and mind. In particular the psychology behind the power the mind has when working with the body in the search for athletic excellence. So you can see why I was keen to read it!

The most important thing I got from this book, is that while personality traits may play a role, the training you give your mind is the most important part in determining success. Some great quotes that explain this so simply from the book are: “The mind leads the body” – Koichi Tohei and “Those who believe they can and those who believe they can’t are both right” – Henry Ford.

In the mental game section of the book, Millman explains how body mind masters treat training and performance with the same respect and intensity. “When you train, you apply the same focus and determination as you would in competition; when you compete, you’re as relaxed and easy-going as in practise.” I’ve always know the mental side of sport to be hugely important, but I maybe haven’t given enough attention to training my mind as I have done my body. The hours I spend in the gym need to not be tipping the scale so far to once side compared to the hours I spend mediating and visualising.

Another thing Millman said that I really liked was, “in striving for mind body mastery, every day, every moment, is a learning experience, so ultimately you can’t lose.” As sport always has its highs and lows, I think that’s a much better mental state to approach it in.

win or learn

I could tell you more of the wonderful insights I learnt from reading the book, but I think Millman would much prefer it if I just recommended that you buy yourself a copy, available from Amazon here, I hugely recommend it!

Oh and in case anyone is wondering, not taking my lectures advice didn’t make final year as easy at it could have been, but it paid off. As my dissertation was awarded a first and was my best mark overall!


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