Study reveals the reason people quit while they are ahead

Now that the Olympics have ended, many gold medalists from the 2018 Winter Games may be taking a long, sometimes permanent, break from the sports they spent years working to be the best at. According to science, this can be a normal side effect of achieving your best.

Study: After reaching your personal best, motivation is likely to go down

Once you’ve reached the top of your game, it’s normal to lose motivation, according to a new study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Looking at more than 100 million online chess games played over 16 years, researchers found that working towards your past peak performance, or “personal best,” is an effective motivator. They found that chess players went the extra mile and boosted their win rate when they were close to surpassing a personal best score. When you set an attainable yet difficult goal for yourself, it acts like a beacon at the end of a long tunnel, “inducing effort when current performance would otherwise fall short,” the study found.

But after reaching that personal best, that concentration and focus can go away, and players can become 20% more likely to quit. “Achieving a personal best precipitates not only a higher rate of quitting but also longer quitting spells,” the study concluded.

Why do people stop when they’re ahead?  The researchers found that your personal best acts as a reference point that can provoke an aversion to losses. You want to end on a high note. You don’t want to be remembered for a failure after working so hard to win.

“When people reach this goal — which is actually a very difficult goal to reach, because by definition you’ve only hit this level once before — they’re so excited and they don’t want to drop down again, so they stop playing,” Ashton Anderson, the co-author of the study, said.

How to use a personal best to your advantage

The solution ultimately is to use the time after beating a personal best for reflection. Recalibrate what a personal best means to you. “The best players play a game and then dissect it; they step away and think about what’s happened, instead of trying to play another one right away. It’s the thinking about it that makes you better,” Etan Green, the study’s other author, suggested.

Luckily for many Olympians, reflective time is built into the international sporting event since it’s cyclical. Take the case study of Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir, two of the most decorated ice dancers of all time, who have won five medals over 20 years at the Olympics. After earning a gold in 2010 and two silvers in 2014, the pair walked away from the sport for a few years. Virtue went to school and Moir spent more time with his family. That reflection time was needed to once more stoke the competitive fires and mount a comeback in 2016. “We were quite surprised by how much that competitive fire was still burning,” Virtue told People about why the duo decided to compete again. “The more we were talking about that, the more tangible it felt, and the more real it felt.”

This led to Virtue and Moir competing in the 2018 Winter Games, where they scored a new world-record that pushed them past their French rivals for another gold.

The lesson? Athletes, like all professionals after a big achievement, can use the time after a win to think about what went right and what went wrong, so that you can get back up and do it again.