It is Andy Murray’s ability to manage his desire for grand slam success as much as his skill on the tennis court that makes him a world-class athlete, research has revealed.
As the British number one prepares to make his bid for Wimbledon victory, researchers from the universities of Birmingham and Southampton found that athletes who recognise when a goal is unattainable and switch their focus to other objectives are the most successful at achieving their main career aims.
Murray dropped out of this year’s French Open after a back injury, missing out on his goal of playing in four grand slam finals in a row.
But the decision saw him recuperate and go on to win the Aegon Championships at Queen’s, and he returns to the All England Club in fine physical shape.
The 26-year-old will be hoping to add the Wimbledon title to his belt after losing in last year’s final to Roger Federer.
And according to new research funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), his decision to pull out of the French Open could be the key to success.
They found that athletes who recognised early when a goal was impossible and shift their targets made more progress towards their main aim.
The researchers also found that the reasons behind a person’s motivation to achieve tough sporting goals influence how well they do in pursuing those goals – a person driven by enjoyment or personal importance of a goal will strive harder and for longer and be more successful compared to someone motivated by external pressure or feelings of guilt.
But when the goal becomes so difficult that it is impossible, people who are self-motivated find it harder to stop striving, causing themselves psychological distress.
The research found that when athletes with high self-motivation recognised early when a goal was impossible they could find new targets that fitted with their overall objectives, so achieving more towards their central goal.
Professor Nikos Ntoumanis, an exercise and sport psychologist from the University of Birmingham, said: “Our experiments showed the importance of a person realising early enough when it was better to continue striving for a goal or when it was best to let go and adopt another similar goal.
“Our research also showed that the reasons behind a sportsperson’s goal are important to know, not just the actual goal.”
The researchers carried out two sophisticated experiments that asked over 180 athletes to complete a range of cycling tests. By making sure some of the tests were unattainable, they explored how athletes coped with failure.
Professor Constantine Sedikides, a social and personality psychologist from the University of Southampton, said: “We found autonomous motives such as enjoyment or personal importance were a double-edged sword.
“Athletes with autonomous motives put in more effort and persisted for longer which helped them reach higher levels of performance with increasingly difficult but attainable goals.
“Yet when the goal became unachievable, they had great difficulty realising this, which led to brooding over the failure as the athletes struggled to disengage from the goal.”
Murray has spoken before about how his ability to handle defeat has improved.
In an interview with the Radio Times, he said last year’s Wimbledon final was one of the toughest matches to lose, but he had gone on to deal with it and respond well after a “painful loss”.
“There’s a lot riding on Wimbledon, but I’m better equipped to deal with the pressures and understand how I need to play matches when I get to the latter stages of the big events,” he said.
“The US Open win has eased pressure on myself, definitely, because winning a grand slam was the aim behind every practice session I have ever put myself through.”
Will you be cheering Andy Murray on to victory this year?