There are several reasons why some athletes cannot unleash their peak performance in competition, while others excel and achieve results they never even thought were possible.
External vs. Internal Factors
Of course, various external factors can play a role. Athletes do not have control over these, such as the weather, the conditions and the performance of their opponents.
Most of the time, however, the answer to the question raised above are the internal factors over which athletes do have control. A further distinction between physical and mental factors could be made.
Physical vs. Mental Factors
What physical factors are is self-explanatory, namely how well athletes have prepared their bodies for the competition. This can be influenced by training, proper nutrition, physiotherapy, etc. Of course, an athlete might not be able to achieve their best if they could not prepare well for a competition because of an acute or recent injury.
Sports vs. Psychology
But by far the most important factor, whether athletes can achieve their full physical potential in competition is their mental strength.
Acquiring the necessary mental strength to make it to the top is not easy. Most of the superstars among athletes have developed this skill throughout their long careers. You might be able to speed up this process and spare yourself some pain.
"Flow" Is the Answer
The answer why some athletes can perform at their best in competition and others choke under pressure cannot be found in sports, but in psychology. Probably the most important concept that one should be aware of as an athlete is the concept of "flow" by Dr. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.
Dr. Csikszentmihalyi was the originator of the scientific research to find out under which conditions humans are capable of peak performance. Csikszentmihalyi gave this psychological state, in which this is possible, the name "flow". If you are not aware of this research, it might be worth looking into it because you might find the answers you have always been looking for.
Peak Performance = Belief in One's Abilities x Mental Willingness to Accept Any Challenge
The result of this research was that one can only perform at one’s best when specific conditions are fulfilled.
The reason why some athletes choke under pressure, while others are able to deliver their peak performance, is a combination of two factors: 1. the unwavering belief in one's own abilities and 2. the mental willingness to face even the biggest challenge.
The most successful athletes not only possess “extraordinary” physical abilities, which they have acquired over endless hours of hard work, but they also have complete confidence in themselves even under the most difficult circumstances.
The Path to Mental Invincibility
The first and most important step for athletes on the way to mental invincibility is probably the departure from "polar thinking" or the winner/loser mentality. This way of thinking is the quickest way for athletes to destroy themselves, as it massively limits their (mental) potential for peak performance.
The reason for this is that winning or losing is not a concrete and achievable goal, and if this is your focus in a competition, it is like playing the lottery and hoping for the big win.
Instead, as an athlete, you should focus solely on your own performance, i.e. to play better, to run faster, to defend harder. You must focus on the process every second of the way and not bother about the result or become distracted by the performances of your opponents. Winning or losing is the consequence of various factors that are in your control and the product of hard work and the determination to do your best at all times and to never give up and persevere.
Winner/Loser Mentality vs. Competitive Mentality
As an athlete, it is better to replace the winner/loser mentality with a competitive mentality. The best athletes in every sport are already doing this. Their competitive spirit is unlike anyone else’s and they want to perform at the highest level. The main goal of these athletes is not winning, it is to push the boundaries of their own limitations. Their motivation for participating in a competition and their experience of setbacks is completely different.
They see being defeat or losing as part of a process that shows them how far they are in their development towards their goals. Instead of giving up when things are not going well or when they really mess up, these athletes will learn the right lessons and then work even harder on themselves so that they can do better next time and end up at the top.
Your Mindset Is Everything
These athletes have understood that it is their mindset and mental strength that matters most, both in a win or a loss. They know that there is no limit to their potential and that they can achieve anything if they work hard on their skills and believe in themselves. They are convinced that then even impossible goals will become possible.
That's the big difference between Michael Jordan, Cristiano Ronaldo, Usain Bolt, Roger Federer, Tiger Woods, Steffi Graf, Michael Schumacher and, of course, many other superstar-athletes. None of them possess unhuman physical strength; what distinguishes them from the rest of the world is the power of their mental strength.
Books on the Subject
If you want to learn more about "flow" and the benefits it has for you in sports, you might want to have a closer look at the following two books before you dive deeper into the matter.
Jackson, Susan A, and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. Flow in Sports. Champaign, Ill: Human Kinetics, 1999. Print.
This book written by Dr. Csikszentmihalyi and shows how the results of the research on flow can be applied to sports. It will provide you with an easy-to-understand overview of this scientific concept and give concrete advice on how to put this into practice.
Perry, J M, and Steve Jamison. In the Zone: Achieving Optimal Performance in Business As in Sports. Chicago, Ill: Contemporary Books, 1997. Print.
This book by the psychologist Dr. J. Mitchell Perry focuses on how you can improve your mental strength in sports. It also provides you with plenty of practical examples on what is necessary to achieve peak performance.