The Psychology of High Performance

I spent yesterday afternoon in Puigcerda with Kilian Jornet, an athlete who dominates two sports: alpine skiing and mountain trail running (skyrunning).  He is 23 years old, but his values and approach to life and sport transmit a maturity far beyond his 23 years of age.

Kilian’s mother says “I believe the most important thing for me was to pass on values to him to be a good person, to love nature, to always live in harmony with what he thinks, and believes; to be sincere”.  She succeeded.

My project: The Psychology of High Performance
I have been working with a friend, Jordi, on a series of interviews and case studies on extreme performance athletes.  We have had the privilege to spend days with Miquel Suñer, Josef Ajram and yesterday with Kilian Jornet.  In our conversations I am learning that it is no surprise that these individuals have achieved the incredible feats in their sports.  They have developed a mental clarity and strength that is very rare in the world.

The Mental Models of High Performance
There are 4 aspects of the mental approach of these high performance athletes that I have observed:

  1. Acceptance – the past is gone, it serves no purpose dwelling on problems, only on dedicating resources to solve the problem and move on.  
  2. Presence in the moment – Miquel, Josef and Kilian prepare, plan and think about strategy…  but once they start in a race they only focus on the moment, or next 5 minutes – they never let their mind think beyond the next moment, the next breath, the next stride, the next drink of liquids.
  3. Humility – each has achieved great things, but do not allow any arrogance to enter, they have no feeling of superiority, of being special.  
  4. Responsibility – nobody else is going to solve their problems.  They know how to ask for help, to use the resources around them, but they never expect that anyone else will take the decisions for them.

Kilian’s words
Kilian spoke about overcoming problems:  “If the seal skin comes off on my ski…  it is a waste to be frustrated or angry…  the only thing that moves me forward is to stop and solve the problem.  Anything else is a waste of vital energy.”

And about the future “I don’t know what the future holds.  I know this is my passion now.  If it remains my passion then it will remain part of my life.”

And about plans “I plan and think through scenarios for every race, strategies, tactics… how I will start, how I will attack…  but I know that as soon as the race starts nothing will go as in the plan…  I am flexible and take the opportunities that come up”.

And about life “anyone who thinks they have achieved great things in this life is a fool”.

Next steps
We have several more interviews scheduled.  Who should be on our list?  Who has achieved extreme levels of performance?  What other aspects of mental strength should we be looking for?  How do people develop this clarity of thought?

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