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This multidisciplinary study used pattern recognition analyses to examine the developmental biographies of 16 Great British Olympic and World Champions (“Super-Elite”) and 16 matched international athletes who had not won major medals (“Elite”). Athlete, coach and parent interviews (260 total interview hours) combined in-depth qualitative and quantitative methods. A combination of demographics, psychosocial characteristics, coach and family relationships, practice, competition, and performance development discriminated Super-Elite from Elite athletes with > 90% accuracy. Compared to Elite athletes, Super-Elite athletes were characterized by: (1) An early critical negative life experience in close proximity to significant positive sport-related events; (2) higher relative importance of sport over other aspects of life, stronger obsessiveness/perfectionism, and sport-related ruthlessness/selfishness; (3) conjoint outcome and mastery focus, and use of counterphobic and/or “total preparation” strategies to maintain/enhance performance under pressure; (4) coaches who better met their physical and psychosocial needs; (5) coming back after severe performance setbacks during adulthood, and career “turning points” leading to enhanced determination to excel; (6) more pronounced diversified youth sport engagement, and prolonged extensive sport-specific practice and competitions; and (7) continued performance improvement over more years during adulthood, eventually attaining their (first) gold medal after 21 ± 6 practice years. The findings are discussed relative to potential causal interactions and theoretical implications.


  • elite, super-elite, development, biography, psychosocial characteristics, pattern recognition analysis
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)23-46
Number of pages24
JournalJournal of Expertise
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - Mar 2019

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