A Key Study Examining the Mind-Set of Success

Contents of this section are compiled by Kaveh Farrokh (Ph.D.), Counsellor & Learning Specialist at Langara College Counselling Department.


A landmark study by Phivos Phylactou has been published in 2019 in EFPSA (Journal of European Psychology Students). The original intent of the study was to examine the mental preparation strategies and processes of Greek-Cypriot Olympic weightlifters. In a sense, this study is a continuation of the ongoing plethora of studies focused on expertise and motivation (especially mental and emotional mind-set) in the fields of learning and athletics as well as other domains of endeavor.

While Phylactou’s research has been focused on professional athletes, a number of his findings bear significant implications for various fields of endeavor, notably students in the post-secondary setting. Three of these are discussed below.

[1] Emotional Arousal Control

This is the process of how we choose to manage our emotions in situations of high arousal (competitions, testing and other types of evaluated performance). The key component in this process is to recognize that a moderate level of stress is not necessarily “bad” – the key component here is the notion of the state of balance in one’s emotions. Interestingly the Yerkes-Dodson theory of optimum performance in 1905 proposed that optimum performance is where a moderate state of stress is balanced with a sense of relaxation (and/or serenity). Too much stress or being too relaxed, the theory proposed, leads to under-achievement in performance situations. In a sense, this is the case of being in the “Zone”, in which one endeavors to get into the state of Flow, a domain that has been researched by Mihaly Czikzenmihaly.

Flow in one’s task is essentially defined as “a deeply satisfying state of focused attention”. Research into flow reveals that the persons enters deeply into task with a bright and intense sense of (calm) focus. Even the notion of time loses its lustre as everything around us simply disappears! In this flow state, memory performance is not only enhanced but everything associated with that activity just seems to go in the right direction – this is essentially being in “The Zone”.

Note how the experience of Flow can tie into the Japanese concept of Kai-Zen which in the broad sense is the query (to ourselves) of How can I Do This Better? The joy in Kai-Zen is being engaged in the task itself – we reframe the performance situation (for example when writing an exam, giving a class presentation, etc.) in a constructive and objective manner. This is the case where one is celebrating challenges.

A key component in this process is endeavoring to calm our cardiovascular system in situations of performance evaluation, which of course can quickly become a high stress. The element that plays a critical role here is the vagal nerve (also known as vagal tone).The vagal nerve actually connects your Brain to your heart (HR variability & BP), stomach and other internal organs. In a sense the vagal nerve calms the interaction between your “Mind” and “Heart”. It is here where our breathing plays a highly seminal role as this helps to regulate our vagal tone/nerve activity. Put simply, the vagal tone in action entails evoking the relaxation response which allows us to calm our heart-Cardio system in response to stressful situations such as tests, performance, competitive activities, etc.

The vagal tone in turn ties into three typical characteristics seen when one is in the state of self-mastery (or Kai-Zen): (a) a state of Flow (being absorbed in your task with enjoyment) (2) having a challenge seeking mind-set (seeing performance tasks as exciting challenges) and (c) enjoying the activity itself, much as one would enjoy a hobby or any activity of personal interest.

As noted in the article below, a number of key neurotransmitters play a constructive role in allowing the person to enter the “Zone” or “Flow”:

Three of those critical neurotransmitters discussed in the above article are as follows: (a) Endorphins (often known as the “pain killer” neurotransmitter, balanced levels of this allow us to experience the “Zone” with a combination of joy and serenity)  (b) Dopamine (the “Reward” neurotransmitter allowing us to get the sense of gratification as we engage in tasks, notably achievement-oriented activities) and (3) Serotonin (the sense of peace, serenity, tranquility – this neurotransmitter is also a critical for learning and memory and other cognitive operations important for academic success).

[2] Coping with Mistakes

Phylactou’s study also found that a key component of success is how one chooses to cope with errors, mistakes and failure. Interestingly persons who lack a sense of self-empathy or self-compassion when they under-perform in situations of high arousal (competitions, testing and other types of evaluated performance) often will not seek ways to ameliorate their challenges. This ties into the Growth Mind-Set research by Carole Dweck. The Growth Mind-Set is characterized by the personal belief that one’s abilities (especially IQ) can be improved with effort, strategy and perseverance. As a result even when the person with the Growth Mind-Set commits errors, they will choose to focus on improving their shortcoming, due to the belief that these can indeed be improved. This type of thinking stands in stark contrast to the Fixed Mind-Set in which the person believes that their abilities (especially IQ) cannot be improved and that ability (especially intellectual/IQ domains) are “fixed”. As a result, the person with the Fixed Mind-Set often will not seek to learn from their mistakes and even attribute their mistakes to their “fixed” lack of ability.  Therefore, this constant concentration on not just improving skills but also fixing their errors leads the person (typically in learning setting) to generate focus on constructive thoughts such as: “Wow! This is an exciting challenge…”. Challenges such as taking tests, giving presentations and/or any other type of evaluative-performance task is thus seen as energizing and even exciting.

For more on this topic see:

[3] Self-Talk

Phylactou noted that a key element in success is the role of self-talk, which of course ties into the aforementioned topics of emotional arousal control and how we choose to cope with mistakes.

Interestingly persons engaged in negative self-talk often lack a sense of self-empathy or self-compassion when they under-perform in situations of high arousal (competitions, testing and other types of evaluated performance). As noted by Kristin Neff, the willingness to learn from our mistakes without engaging in self-flagellation is seminal to self-compassion. As further averred by Neff, Self-flagellation is not helpful in terms of helping us to achieve our goals and actually serves to hinders our progress. Self-compassion obliges us to view our challenges as a part of our human condition. In this regard, when we face challenging evaluative-performance situations, we have the option of keeping our emotions in balance. This process leads to us towards a sense calm sense of self-understanding and patience. Self-Compassion hence also becomes an effective tool for reducing excessive stress notably in performance type situations (e.g. test-taking).

Phylactou has also identified another factor in his study characterized as “Intrinsic Self-Efficacy”. This is essentially the concept of “Locus of Control” discussed often in Personality Psychology. This is the notion of the one’s perception of the amount of control one has over outcomes. Having an internal locus of control would mean that one believes that one does have control over outcomes. Having an external locus of control is the opposite is that one believes that outcomes are consistently controlled by outside factors that one cannot control.

Self-talk is profoundly influenced by one’s sense of self-compassion and sense of reference (the norm or the self). Put simply, one’s self-talk has a significant impact on the quality of the person’s concentration and focus. The quality of one’s focus has been found to have a significant impact on the person’s selection of techniques – be this in athletics as well as learning/performance milieus.


Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. New York, HarperPerrennial.

Dweck, C.S. (2015). The Secret to Raising Smart Kids. Scientific American Mind: Mysteries of the Mind (Special Collector’s Edition), Volume 23, Number 4, Winter, pp.77-83.

Phylactou, P. (2019). Inside the mind of weightlifters: The mental preparation of Greek-Cypriot Olympic-style weightlifting athletes. Journal of European Psychology Students, 10(1), pp. 1–15.

Wilhite, Stephen C (1990).  Self-Efficacy, Locus of Control, Self-Assessment of Memory Ability, and Study Activities As Predictors of College Course Achievement.  Journal of Educational Psychology, Vol.82, No.4, pp.696-700.

Comments are closed.