Risk and Commitment in Sport Psychology: Lessons in Motivation

Athletes at the London Games have provided a wonderful example of deliberate practice, sustained training and elite performance through adversity over short and long periods of time. An outstanding representative of this point is Felix Sanchez of the Dominican Republic. This Games winner of the 400m hurdles was the gold medalist at the ’04 Athens Games. Over the past eight years, he has persisted in his pursuit of being the world’s best although repeatedly facing career interrupting injuries. Eight years since his last Olympic triumph, and weeks away from age 35, Sanchez was able to win the 400m hurdles for a second time.

Another track athlete, LoLo Jones returned to the Olympics competing in the 100m hurdles. Her ’08 performance in Beijing, expected to be a gold medal, was dashed when she smashed into the 9th of 10 hurdles while leading and finished 7th in the final. She, like Sanchez didn’t let massive and/or repeated adversity lead to giving up their competitve pursuits. Although Jones finished 4th in the London 100m hurdles, her taking the risk to try and return to the Olympic medal stand is a lesson in commitment and determination.

Allyson Feix won the women’s 200 meters final in London, defeating her nemesis Shelly-Ann Fraser Price of Jamaica. Felix was quoted as saying “I thought back to the disappointment in Beijing,” she had been the silver medalist in ’08 Beijing and ’04 Athens. She further said, “It’s been a long road, I never wanted to give up. It’s been a journey — never easy, but you can’t lose sight of your dream. … I’ve wanted it for so long.” Singular focus, commitment and risk were never more well described.

A slightly different twist, and involving a shorter period of time, is the journey Jordyn Weiber has taken during the London Games. The reigning World Champion was expected to be a leading contender for the women’s gymnastics all-around gold medal. Her performance was not strong enough in the preliminaries which left her unable to qualify for the all-around competition. It was a heart breaking and stunning disappointment for Weiber. However, she is part of a gymnastics “Team” who had to compete the following day in the team competition and Weiber was an integral part of the Team. She rallied, bouyed by her teammates and family, and put in an excellent performance contributing to the women’s team winning the gold. Her commitment to her teammates and the resilience to fight back, in the face of a devastating setback, lead to her strong team performance.

Lastly, Scott Gault rowed in the men’s quad at the Beijing Games. The quad had a terrific qualifying heat leading them directly into the final. There, the quad had a less then stellar race finishing out of the medals. The high expectations were dashed in six minutes leaving Gault to struggle with his career going forward. Taking the risk to stay with the US team and train for London was not a guarantee he would make another Olympic boat. Commitment, taking a risk and sustaining his focus on the goal of making another Olympic team lead Gault to stroke the men’s four (not the quad this time which is a sculling event) and won the bronze medal.

These five athletes allowed their confidence, optimism, motivation, and focus to blend with obvious support from family, friends and teammates to help them sustain optimal perfomance in the face of enormous adversity and emotional challenges. Life is about taking risks and having adventures which these four athletes and many more at the London Games.
(Scott Gault is on the right with bronze medal men’s four teammates)