Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on

Gold medal formula: Mind over matter?

From Ben Wyatt, CNN
January 31, 2012 -- Updated 1317 GMT (2117 HKT)
  • Experts tell CNN how practice and dedication can future gold medal winners
  • Matthew Syed, author of Bounce, believes coaching and access to facilities are crucial
  • Mental coach Andy Barton says imagining success can also help an athlete
  • Barton says visualization can help athletes when it comes to top-level competition

(CNN) -- Mind over matter? Or nature over nurture? What is it that separates Olympic legends like Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt and U.S. swimmer Michael Phelps from the millions of enthusiastic amateurs around the world?

Can training, dedication and the right mindset turn any sporting hopeful into a world-class athlete?

Matthew Syed, author of "Bounce" and a former Olympic table tennis player, believes that an individual's ability is secondary to the level of coaching they receive and the facilities to which they have access.

"I think the idea of talent is misleading and in many ways overrated," Syed told CNN's Aiming for Gold show.

"When I became English No. 1, I thought I must be super talented. But the top players in the country at that time, 80% of them didn't just come from the same town or the same suburb, but from the very same street.

U.S. swimmer Michael Phelps admitted he struggled for motivation after his record-breaking feats at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, but is now fully focused on this year's event in London. U.S. swimmer Michael Phelps admitted he struggled for motivation after his record-breaking feats at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, but is now fully focused on this year's event in London.
Olympic aim
The secrets of sporting success The secrets of sporting success

Olympic goal: A swimmer's story

"There hadn't been a genetic mutation -- we happened to have the best coach who gave us access to the only 24-hour club.

"So we practiced before school, after school, at weekends, on holidays. Over many years, we transformed ourselves from perfectly ordinary players into world-class players."

So does practice in itself make the world's top athletes perfect? Not necessarily, according to mental performance coach Andy Barton.

"Practice doesn't make perfect," he says. "You only have to think of your handwriting for instance, how as you get older the more you write the worse you get.

"Only perfect practice will make perfect. To improve you have to be very specific about what you are aiming to do and target it."

London Olympics on time
Tyson Gay healthy and ready to run

It is a view supported by Syed, who suggests that the willingness of top athletes to push themselves further and further in practice pays dividends when it comes to high-pressure competition.

"It's interesting, for example, that world-class ice dancers fall over more often in practice than intermediate ice dancers, which sounds paradoxical," he said.

"The reason is they are always pushing themselves, they are attempting jumps that are at the outer limits of their capabilities. It's a branch of science called 'epigenetics' -- the brain is re-wired as we practice."

Once athletes have meticulously honed their skills, they should, in theory, have all the tools at their disposal to achieve success. But in high-pressure situations, even the greatest can crumble.

What causes a footballer to crack under the nail-biting strain of a penalty shootout? Or a tennis star to fall apart at match point?

"The problem when you're under pressure is you're so nervous you start thinking consciously about the shot you are playing," Syed says.

I think the idea of talent is misleading and in many ways overrated
Matthew Syed

"You are intruding upon your subconscious competence, and that is what triggers the choking response."

So how can Olympians preparing for London 2012 ensure they are mentally ready to challenge for gold? Barton suggested that imagining the crowning moment is almost as important as physically training for it.

"The thing about when we mentally rehearse something vividly, it actually fires up the same neurology in the brain as if we were really experiencing it. So on a certain level the mind cannot differentiate between a vividly-imagined experience and reality.

"What we need to do is to create our own realities in our heads so you can imagine yourself in that Olympic final, for instance, performing how you want to perform.

"The more you actually do that, the more your body and mind get used to it, so when you come to the real thing, you're more prepared."

So the next time you find yourself daydreaming of sprinting to 100 meters gold, don't dismiss it -- it might just be vital preparation for your future Olympic success.

Part of complete coverage on
August 13, 2012 -- Updated 1353 GMT (2153 HKT)
The moment that Team GB's Mo Farah won the 10,000 meters was a wonderful collision of electricity.
August 13, 2012 -- Updated 1534 GMT (2334 HKT)
His blistering pace and larger-than-life antics made him the king of the track in London, and bolstered his claims to be a "living legend."
August 14, 2012 -- Updated 0944 GMT (1744 HKT)
Disappointment for Nigeria's Muizat Ajoke Odumosu, who came last in the 400m hurdles final, London 2012 Olympics.
The Olympics are generally won and lost long before the opening ceremony cauldron is touched by fire.
August 12, 2012 -- Updated 0738 GMT (1538 HKT)
Fans of the home side, Team GB, wave Union Jack flags during the Olympic Games
CNN's Richard Quest believes the London Games will be regarded as having brought the Olympics concept home.
August 11, 2012 -- Updated 1633 GMT (0033 HKT)
Strategist Alastair Campbell says he never imagined London 2012 would be quite the triumph it turned out to be.
August 14, 2012 -- Updated 2057 GMT (0457 HKT)
Award-winning director Danny Boyle celebrates the best of British music in London 2012's Olympic Closing Ceremony.
January 31, 2013 -- Updated 1452 GMT (2252 HKT)
From Usain Bolt's record-setting achievements to an unexpected Ugandan gold, London 2012 has provided a wide array of highlights.
August 13, 2012 -- Updated 0305 GMT (1105 HKT)
CNN's Amanda Davies recaps the London 2012 Olympics from the opening ceremony on July 27 to the finale on day 16.
August 12, 2012 -- Updated 1702 GMT (0102 HKT)
Mo Farah and Usain Bolt celebrate their success at the London 2012 Olympic Games by copying each other's
It's been just over two weeks since the Queen parachuted into London's Olympic Stadium, her apricot dress flapping in the breeze.
August 15, 2012 -- Updated 1214 GMT (2014 HKT)
When the world's top marathon runners bid to win Olympic gold, they would do well to draw inspiration from one of the greatest athletes in the history of track and field.
August 11, 2012 -- Updated 1633 GMT (0033 HKT)
Team GB supporters with their faces painted in Union Jack designs at the Olympic Stadium in London.
Alastair Campbell always thought London 2012 would be a success, but never imagined it would be quite the triumph it has turned out to be.
August 10, 2012 -- Updated 1021 GMT (1821 HKT)
Adrien Niyonshuti is unlikely to win an Olympic medal, and he will do well to even finish his event, but his story is surely one of the most inspirational.
August 10, 2012 -- Updated 1605 GMT (0005 HKT)
The colors of the Olympic Rings at the Olympic Park in Stratford, east London, August 2012.
Olympic fever has cheered up London and made it a more welcoming place, but will optimism be one of the legacies of the Games?
August 10, 2012 -- Updated 1825 GMT (0225 HKT)
Wojdan Shaherkani's Olympic debut was short, but sweet -- the Saudi judoka said competing at the Games was
London 2012 is the first Olympics to feature women in every national team, with Jacques Rogge hailing a "major boost for gender equality."
August 10, 2012 -- Updated 0040 GMT (0840 HKT)
An impoverished South Korean gymnast has not only struck Olympic gold, but also reaped a $444,000 donation in a veritable rags to riches tale.
August 9, 2012 -- Updated 0046 GMT (0846 HKT)
Britain's hero Jessica Ennis is set to cash in after winning heptathlon gold, but the poster girl of the 2012 Olympics says fame is not her motivation.
August 8, 2012 -- Updated 0746 GMT (1546 HKT)
China is rallying around fallen hurdler Liu Xiang after he failed to make it past the first-round heat for a second consecutive Olympics.
August 3, 2012 -- Updated 1930 GMT (0330 HKT)
The first woman to win Olympic gold almost died in a plane crash, but remarkably returned to run again for the U.S. in 1936.
August 7, 2012 -- Updated 1504 GMT (2304 HKT)
Don Paige could not bear to watch the race he knew he could win. The 1980 Moscow Olympics were the death of a dream for many athletes.
August 4, 2012 -- Updated 1421 GMT (2221 HKT)
Ricardo Blas Jr
While Michael Phelps and Usain Bolt grab the headlines, little-known athletes from around the world keep alive the original spirit of the Olympics.
Athletes spend years eating the right foods ... and then must resist the free fast food in the Olympic village. How do they do it?