Can Surgeons Learn Lessons from Olympians?

An interesting article titled “Performing to a world class standard under pressure—Can we learn lessons from the Olympians?” by Serryth D. Colbert and et. al. appeared in the 2012 issue of the British Journal of Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery (50, pp 291-297).

With the Summer Olympics this year in London, the authors decided to ask Team Great Britain Olympic rowing squad what makes a winner. The authors state:

“We explored the concept of ‘mental toughness’ and the impact this has on successful performance under intense pressure. Our aim was to use their experiences to possibly improve oral and maxillofacial surgeons’ performance in critical situations.”

The researchers consulted a leading performance development consultancy and made a questionnaire which was given to both the rowers and the surgeons at a joint conference.  The results were that the rowers responded to the questionnaire with more ‘mentally tough’ responses than the surgeons. This difference in response averaged 12% on the Likert scales (were 1 is strongly disagree, 2 is disagree, 3 is neither agree nor disagree, 4 is agree, and 5 is strongly agree).

The researchers speculate that

“The superior performance demonstrated by the athletes on the Likert Scale may reflect the desire that athletes require in order to perform at elite levels. This presumes a high level of self-belief in ones ability to achieve competition goal…”

The responses by the rowers when asked to define mental toughness were interesting:

“Mental toughness is not being affected by anything but what’s going on in the race. It’s being able to block out what’s not important.

The British Olympic rowing team identified one of the key components of mental toughness as learning how to condition the mind to overcome frustration, i.e. don’t allow frustration to undermine confidence or focus. The rowers view on this was to regard being positive ‘as a discipline. . . and the more adversity faced, the more positive one must be.’”

It is interesting to note that Olympians take control of negative self talk and reframe it into positive task-oriented suggestions.

The authors state that:

“…both male and female international athletes use a wider range of psychological skills (goal setting, imagery, activation, self-talk, emotional control, negative thinking and relaxation) in training and competition than those of a lower standard. This research could possibly be progressed to consider the extent to which trainee oral and maxillofacial surgeons employ psychological skills in training to facilitate the learning process.”

The authors in the conclusion state:

“Motivation is the foundation of all athletic effort and accomplishment. Without the determination to improve performance, all of the other mental factors mentioned such as confidence, intensity, focus, and emotions, are meaningless. Athletes recognise the prime importance of motivation. However true motivation must come from within, it cannot be taught.”

I found this piece on looking at the top Olympic performers and looking for insights to improve surgical skill to be  fun and interesting. Learning how to foster and improve psychological skills can be powerful for anyone to help improve performance.

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