You just have to want to win is a sentence that athletes often hear. But is it really mental strength that determines success? A new study gives clear indications.

There are numerous moments in sport that later are said to have been a victory of will. This applies to professionals as well as amateurs. Sometimes it is also said that someone only won because they wanted it the most. I often heard these sentences when I was a tennis or basketball player, when we were at some tournaments. But what is it actually about the sports talk? What is more important, the fitness, the athletic ability and talent – or the will?

A small study has now been published that could provide clues as to which of these factors is really decisive. The study was published in the European Journal of Sport Science and carried out by a team from the Swiss Federal Institute of Sport. Unfortunately, only 25 people were examined, a larger number would be desirable. The 17 boys and eight girls were members of the U17 national cycling team. They underwent numerous psychological and physiological examinations.

In order to be able to evaluate fitness, the so-called VO2max value was examined. It quantifies how much (volume = V) oxygen (O2) the heart and lungs deliver to the muscles under maximum stress (max) and how much of it can be utilized by the body per minute. The VO2max value is considered the gold standard in sports science and is given in ml/min/kg. With 63 ml/min/kg in the test subjects and 71 ml/min/kg in the male study participants, all were at least in the “highly trained” range.

In order to be able to evaluate the psyche of the cyclists, five segments were considered: mental techniques, self-compassion (how one criticizes and sees oneself), mental toughness (how one reacts after defeats or mistakes), motivation for success and action orientation (how quickly one refocuses after mistakes). The investigation was carried out on a short and protected test track. The conditions were almost identical for everyone, distracting factors were eliminated.

Is it a victory of will? Or physical strength

At the end, all the data determined was converted into numbers, which were then compared with each other using a complicated comparison. The clear result: The physical factor, i.e. the VO2max value, was the factor that decided the most about success. In relation to each other, the scientists came to the conclusion that 77 percent of the physical value and 23 percent of the psychological value determine the performance.