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Psychology of Champions

November 3, 2014

What does it take to be a champion? Good Genes? Dedication? Natural talent? Producer Stacey Jenkins explores the role nature vs. nurture plays in sports, along with new research in sports science that could change the way we choose our sport.

Stacey Jenkins: Sophie Curatilo wants to win this race. The Seattle University senior is trying to take the lead to win her second straight cross country meet. She’s up against 90 other top collegiate female runners.

Sophie Curatilo:  So usually the last ten seconds of a race, I can’t feel my legs, my forearms are throbbing, my necks hurts, my face hurts from going like this the whole time. The one thing I can think about it is “Sophie, you did not just run this hard for this long, and you’re not going to quit.

Cross Country Runners at Practice.

Jenkins: Does Sophie have what it takes to be a champion?  It’s an age-old question of nature vs. nurture and the role it plays in sports.

A Student taking a test for aerobic capacity at POTENTRx and Speck Health

Doctor Dan Tripps: Today we're doing a test for aerobic capacity which is the metabolic side, to see how big is her engine - how capable is she to deliver fuel to her muscle side when she demands it and wants to make use of it in some athletic way.

Jenkins: Doctor Dan Tripps is the Performance Director at POTENTRx and Speck Health. The facility collects data from athletes that help them determine strengths and weaknesses.

Tripps: What everybody’s searching for now in terms of the holy grail is – can you take a look at the genes themselves - predisposed phenotypes like strength and flexibility and so on, be predictive – that means if I find these genes in you, you are likely going to be a great shot putter and you are likely going to be a great endurance runner – they’re doing a lot of research right now trying to locate those - the data is inconclusive at the point, but it’s clear there’s a genetic relationship because you can see it intuitively when you look outside in as opposed to inside out.

Jenkins: In “The Sports Gene,” author David Epstein explores the role genetics play in athletic achievement. The sports journalist says our genes and traits play a large role in determining what sports we’re going to excel in. Should genetic testing become the norm when it’s available?

Tripps: Sure. Getting answers that predispose your child to success – why would you not want that? You do it for reading and math and other things – I think you’ll see that pop up rather dramatically. There are a lot of services right now – testing services for athletes that say “you look good at this, you should be a half-back, you look good at this, you should be in tennis. So I think it’s going to become a very significant business.

Jenkins: Looking at Sophie from the outside, It’s clear her genes give her an athletic edge. But many of her teammates also display those genes. Sports Psychologists say what goes on in Sophie’s head during a race can be just as powerful as genetics.

Doctor Don Christensen: So we see an amazing performer and we think "man, why wasn't I born with his or her genes." so that’s one way of thinking where ability comes from. and its a pretty dominant view of our society - a high percentage of people thinks it. but there's another way of thinking where ability comes from - it's often referred to as a growth orientation. and the idea there is that you pick it up along the way.

Jenkins: Dr. Don Christensen says athletes with a growth orientation or mindset take on challenges willingly, and see winning as a product of hard work over time, as opposed to those with a fixed mindset who connect performance with natural born abilities.

Christensen: “What’s ironic is many of the people who get the label you’re awesome or you’re great – they’re priming the fixed mindset in those people. They may experience success early, but they tend to plateau and they trend to not improve over time. In contrast with the growth orientation - you give the same opportunity to that child or adult and they say "ooh let’s see what I can learn here" - and they take it on - the idea is that anyone who takes on challenges with the right approach - over time they improve.”

Jenkins:  Dr. Christensen says there’s another key factor that plays a large role in determining a champion.

Christensen: The ability to deal with setbacks and failure. the further up you go in sports, the harder its going to be. the competition gets more difficult, and you're likely to encounter difficulties. What’s your response when you struggle? That’s a huge area that I work on with the athletes that I see.

Curatilo: Everybody makes mistakes, nobody’s perfect. I don’t eat myself up over it. I don’t dwell on the fact that I didn’t get that or just motivates you for your next race.

Sophie and Her Teammates at Practice

Trisha Steidle: There’s a lot of people who have a lot of talent that really don’t take that very far. There’s a lot of people with not very much talent but are very motivated. And they will dig down, they will work their butts off, and they will make stuff happen where they can beat people who are far more talented than they are. So if you can bring those two together, that’s where Olympians come from.

 Sophie crosses finish line and wins the race

Curatilo:  It was good, hard race – good competition. 

Jenkins : Sophie not only won the cross country race, she also set a new time record. Her physical performance and mental state came together, and created a champion today.




Made possible in part by

Stacey Jenkins

Stacey Jenkins is the managing producer of Spark Public. She is an Emmy-award winning producer who is passionate about pushing the boundaries of digital media and training the next generation of multimedia journalists. Stacey has been a Digital Content Producer at KCTS 9 for the past four years; her stories have been showcased locally on IN Close as well as nationally on SciTech Now and the PBS NewsHour's Art Beat. Stacey’s experience also includes working as a senior producer for KPTS, as an assistant media instructor and producer for Portland Community College and a TV news reporter for the CBC in Canada.

Fun Fact: Stacey’s guilty pleasures include over-the-top Halloween decor, eating sweetened condensed milk straight from the can and Maroon 5’s “Sugar” video.

More stories by Stacey Jenkins

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Congrats on another great showing and a great article in the Hono paper with two photos of you at the WAC cross country championships. Do well in the NCAA Western Regionals and on your arrival in Hono sometime soon I'll buy you a quart of of ice cream for your troubles. Good luck at Stanford.