Wimbledon 2013: The secret of Andy Murray's success? Knowing when to admit defeat

The British tennis star's ability to know when to give up could be a key attribute in his bid for Wimbledon glory
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Some put his recent success down to the impact of new coach Ivan Lendl –others to the drive and determination of his mother Judy. But the secret of Andy Murray's ascendancy is in part attributable to his rare ability to recognise when to give up, suggest scientists.

Follow game-by-game coverage of Andy Murray's first match of Wimbledon 2013 against Benjamin Becker

The 26-year-old US Open champion, who begins his Wimbledon campaign on Centre Court today, has benefited from his capacity to tell when it is time to "let go" and abandon the challenge he has set himself in order to move on to the next, the researchers claim.

The British Olympic champion dropped out of the French Open this month because of a back injury, scuppering his hope of playing in four Grand Slam finals in a row. But in doing so he has been able to recuperate and be fit for Wimbledon. This ability to recognise when a sporting goal has moved out of reach and switch focus to the next one is a key ingredient of the sporting champion, psychologists have concluded.

Researchers from the universities of Birmingham and Southampton found the highest achieving athletes were those motivated by enjoyment or for whom attaining a goal was personally important. Those who worked hard as a result of external pressure or a sense of guilt tended to do less well.

But the former group, though better motivated, were worse at recognising when a goal was beyond them, found it harder to stop striving to reach it and were more depressed by failure. The secret of all-round success was to be highly motivated, but also capable of abandoning unattainable goals quickly and moving on to the next.

In a study funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, researchers studied 180 athletes who were set a range of cycling tasks, some of which were deliberately designed to be unattainable, enabling them to examine how the athletes coped with failure.

The results showed those who were more highly motivated struggled for longer and suffered deeper disappointment when they failed. Those who gave up on the unattainable goals sooner and switched to another task did better overall. Professor Nikos Ntoumanis, from the University of Birmingham, said: "Our experiments showed the importance of a person realising early enough when it was best to let go and adopt another similar goal." The University of Southampton's Professor Constantine Sedikides said: "We found autonomous motives such as enjoyment or personal importance were a double-edged sword. Athletes with such motives put in more effort and persisted for longer which helped them reach higher levels of performance with increasingly difficult but attainable goals. Yet when the goal became unachievable, they had great difficulty realising this, leading to brooding as they struggled to disengage from the goal."

Awareness of athletes' motives and not just of the goal they are seeking is necessary in order to help them most effectively, the experts say. The findings may be used in other areas, such as helping people to lose weight, where recognising swiftly that some goals are unachievable is key to staying motivated and making progress.

40-love: Wimbledon in numbers

1 54,250 balls will be used during the championships.

2 They are stored at exactly 20C to ensure uniform consistency.

3 Yellow balls were used for the first time in 1986.

4 Goran Ivanisevic holds the record for hitting the most aces in a championship: 212 in 2001.

5 The ladies' record is 57, shared by Alexandra Stevenson in 1999 and Serena Williams in 2008.

6 484,805 people attended the 13 days of the championships in 2012.

7 There are 38,500 spectators in the grounds at any one time.

8 The global TV audience was 378.8m people in 198 territories.

9 They viewed 15,388 hours of footage.

10 The longest final in Wimbledon history took place between Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal in 2008. It lasted 4hrs and 48mins.

11 About 200,000 glasses of Pimm's will be drunk.

12 If it didn't have a retractable roof, 7,500 umbrellas would be needed to cover centre court.

13 When the roof is deployed 143,000 litres of air per second are pumped into the bowl.

14 It would take 290 million tennis balls to fill centre court with the roof closed.

15 The fastest serve recorded was 148mph by Taylor Dent in 2010.

16 Venus Williams holds the record for the ladies – 129mph in 2008.

17 Championship playing grass is cut to 8mm high.

18 It is composed of 100 per cent rye grass, which is more resistant to wear and tear.

19 25,000 bottles of champagne will be drunk.

20 Maria Sharapova is the loudest grunter, with one recorded at 105 decibels in 2009.

21 Rufus, a Harris Hawk, deters pigeons from the club. He disappeared for three days in 2012.

22 The longest match was played over three days in 2010. John Isner beat Nicolas Mahut in 11hrs 5mins, winning the fifth set 70-68.

23 660 matches are played during the fortnight.

24 Championship towels are the top-selling merchandise item, with 25,000 sold last year.

25 10,000 umbrellas were also sold.

26 More than 2,000 rackets will be strung by the stringing team, using 40 miles of string.

27 Slazenger has supplied the official balls since 1902.

28 Robinson's has been the official still soft-drink since 1935.

29 This year the singles champions will each receive £1.6m of the £22.6m prize money.

30 Equal prize money for men and women was introduced in 2007.

31 250 ball boys and girls will be in attendance.

32 28,000kg of Grade I Kent strawberries will be consumed in the fortnight.

33 8,615 punnets, containing at least ten berries and costing £2.50, will be consumed every day.

34 They are served with 7,000 litres of fresh cream.

35 Since 1922, the tournament has been played without rain interruption seven times: 1931, 1976, 1977, 1993, 1995, 2009 and 2010.

36 The last British male singles champion was Fred Perry in 1936.

37 He beat Baron Gottfried von Cramm, who was awarded the Iron Cross in 1942 for bravery during the battle of Stalingrad.

38 The last British woman to win was Virginia Wade in 1977.

39 The last British male finalist was Andy Murray in 2012, the first British man in the final for 74 years.

40 The first player to be disqualified from Wimbledon was Tim Henman, who struck a ball girl in the head after hitting a ball in anger in 1995.