Headstrong chat to Chad Le Clos

Headstrong had the opportunity of chatting to Chad le Clos a short while before the 2012 Olympic Games. Looking back on that interview after Chad’s amazing performances in London, raises some interesting points for our understanding of mental performance at an elite level.


“My strengths are my back end of my race which is usually the last 50m of a 200m race, and my under waters”.  You only need to watch the race Chad swam in the 200m butterfly final, to realise how freakishly prophetic Chad’s comments are. He burst out of the blocks taking an early lead in the first lap after some great work under water. Michael Phelps, looking to set a record for winning gold in the same event in three consecutive Olympics, managed to beat Chad to the turn at the end of lap one. Coming down the last stretch Phelps look destined to win it, but Chad, again relying on his strengths, had a sensational finish to beat Phelps by 5 one hundredths of a second.

Chad’s performance in this race epitomised the performance of an athlete taking full advantage of their strengths. There is a growing body of research to indicate that training that emphasises an athletes’ strengths is an incredibly useful approach to development. This is a burgeoning field of research and practice in psychology, and there is evidence that people who use their strengths are more confident, more likely to achieve their goals and more effective at self-development, than those who don’t (Gordon & Gucciardi, 2012). This idea has been further stimulated by the advances in neuroscience that indicate our greatest return on our investment into development comes from focusing on the synaptic connections that are already strong (Hodges & Clifton, 2004). These dominant synaptic connections are the physical correlates of thoughts and behaviours that we perform well and repeatedly; our strengths.

Expanding on his strengths, Chad placed a strong emphasis on his work ethic, “I work really hard in training”. For Chad this single aspect of an athlete’s approach seemed to be most significant, he spoke often of ‘working extremely hard’ and ‘pushing yourself further when your body can’t go anymore’.  

This is an important point for those looking for the formula for success, or the ‘top 5 tips to improve performance’. There is a common misconception that adding a new technique, or piece of equipment, is going to be the difference between winning and losing. Associations with the recipe for greatness, quick fixes, or magic pills, suggest that it’s just a matter of putting certain elements together in the perfect combination, and the results will fall into your lap. What is really significant about Chad’s approach, is the discipline, commitment and hard work. Various other factors play a role in determining success (talent, level of competition, luck) but the insight that Chad provides is how vital hard work is. In fact the importance of deliberate practice in success is well acknowledged, with the idea of the ten thousand hour rule, now a popular concept (Crust, 2008). Talent and the combination of physical, technical and psychological attributes are extremely important, but it would be fair to say that talent and ability alone rarely result in success, especially the Olympic kind.

So what allows for this kind of commitment and drive? Le Clos spoke to us about the difficulty “when there are days that you really do not want to swim lengths, let alone have to count them”, and yet training 13 times a week means having to confront those days regularly, and do them anyway. Maybe Chad’s comments about his motivation provide the key, “Michael Phelps is the person that I have always wanted to beat. He drives me”.  Another prophetic comment from the young swimmer, describing a remarkable goal that less than a month later he accomplished to the delight and amazement of a nation and the world.

Chad Le Clos winning gold in the men's 200m butterfly final at the 2012 London Olympics

It was an incredible feat for the young South African to snatch the gold medal from ‘Golden Boy’ Phelps, but it is interesting to reflect on the kind of fierce determination that characterised le Clos’ journey to gold. Jones and colleagues (2007) have highlighted the importance of an ‘insatiable desire and internalised motives to achieve’ in mentally tough, elite athletes. It is this kind of desire that seems to characterise Chad, and is reflected in his comments about swimming.  This kind of commitment combined with the fixation of his abilities on the one goal of beating the world’s best, was how Chad won gold.

What Chad highlights, is that there is no magic cure. His success was built on the back of intensive, dedicated practice. After the race Chad’s coach, Graham Hill described the attention that had been given to practicing back end of his race. Chad had been drilled, intensively in the importance of lunging to full stretch with each stroke in the final few moments of the race (McFarlane, 2012). The value of this was summed in an interview after the race where Chad said, “I just remember thinking to myself and my coach saying 'keep it long and make sure you don't shorten up’” (SAPA, 2012). This made the difference between winning and losing. Five-one-hundredths of a second’s difference.


Crust, L. (2008). A review and conceptual re-examination of mental toughness: Implications for future researchers. Personality and Individual Differences, 45(7), 576-583.

Gordon, S., & Gucciardi, D. F. (2011). A strengths-based approach to coaching mental toughness. Journal of Sport Psychology in Action, 2(3), 143-155

Hodges, T. D., & Clifton, D. O. (2004). Strengths-based development in practice. In P. A. Linley & S. Joseph (Eds.), Positive Psychology in Practice. New Jersey: Wiley and Sons.

Jones, G., Hanton, S., & Connaughton, D. (2007). A framework of mental toughness in the world's best performers. Sport Psychologist, 21(2), 243-264.

SAPA. (2012, July 31). Le Champ! Chad dethrones Phelps to take gold. Retrieved fromhttp://mg.co.za/article/2012-07-31-le-champ-chad-claims-gold-and-prized-phelps-scalp

McFarlane, N. (2012, August). Did Le Clos win, or Phelps lose? Retrieved fromhttp://www.bolanderproperty.co.za/opinion/1274-did-le-clos-win-or-phelps-lose.html