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Secret of Peak Performance: Indispensability

A look at swimmers competing in the 2008 Beijing Olympics concludes they gave their best performances when their efforts were essential for a team win.
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Necessity may or may not be the mother of invention, but it appears to be a highly effective motivator — even for the best of the best.

That’s the conclusion of a new study that looks at data from swimming competitions at the 2008 Olympics. It finds these world-class athletes turned in better performances during relays than in their individual competition heats.

But there was a catch: This team effect was only found when they were the second, third or fourth person in a four-person relay. A sense of “perceived indispensability” — the understanding that their performance had to be excellent if the team were to win — drove them to even higher levels of athletic achievement.

“Motivation gains at the Olympics are especially remarkable,” co-authors Joachim Huffmeier and Guido Hertel write in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, “because athletes should already be maximally motivated in their individual competitions.”

The German psychologists first conducted a pilot study of 29 competitive swimmers, asking them “How well can a bad performance on your part be compensated by the other swimmers of your relay?” As expected, they found the athletes considered their own contribution more indispensible the later they performed in the relay.

The researchers then examined data on 64 Olympic swimmers from 21 countries, focusing on the semifinal rounds. All the athletes took part in both individual and relay freestyle competitions.

They found the times for the first swimmers in a relay were no better than those they turned in during their individual meets. However, “second, third, and last swimmers swam significantly faster in the relay than in the individual competition.”

Huffmeier and Hertel attribute this to two factors: intergroup competition (in other words, being pushed by one another) and “social indispensability.” In the athletes’ minds, a mediocre opening performance can be compensated for later on, but one toward the end cannot, making their late-stage efforts even more vital.

A number of studies have found that, compared to working individually, individuals tend to be more motivated by group projects. But as Hertel and his colleague Bernhard Weber noted in their 2007 meta-analysis of this research, this effect “is particularly true for less-capable, inferior group members.”

The new study finds this dynamic isn’t limited to raising the level of the mediocre: It also inspires some of the most capable members of an elite group. Topflight athletes may, of necessity, be self-focused. But at least in this sample, they reached their highest performance levels when they were highly motivated to not let down their teammates.