Mind over matter? Researchers reveal 3 secrets to athletic success
Senior men's gold medallist Patrick Chan skates during the gala event following the 2018 Canadian National Skating Championships in Vancouver, B.C., Sunday, Jan. 14, 2018. (Jonathan Hayward/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Published Tuesday, February 6, 2018 10:42PM EST
Last Updated Tuesday, February 6, 2018 10:52PM EST
Getting yourself on an Olympic podium is more than a matter of pure athletic ability, a trio of researchers from Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore say – it’s also about mental training to make split-second decisions, overcome disorientation and keep calm under pressure.
MAKING SPLIT-SECOND DECISIONS
Imagine racing down an icy track on a pair of speed skates, only to be suddenly cut off by a competitor. Whereas a moment’s hesitation could lead to a dramatic wipeout, an Olympic contender must adjust their speed and trajectory in the blink of an eye in order to stay in the game.
“Sports, especially Olympic sports like skiing, skating and so on have a lot in common with the types of decisions that we study in the lab,” neuroscientist Christopher Fetsch told CTVNews.ca.
Fetch investigates how the brain makes choices by considering sensory information. Through the rigours of training, medal contenders, he says, learn to make such choices with increased speed and accuracy in order to gain a competitive edge in their sports.
“While they’re training their muscles, they’re also training their minds,” Fetsch explained. “At the highest levels of sports, the physical attributes… are generally going to be pretty comparable between individuals, but it could be that what sets apart the gold medalists from the rest is a quicker or more efficient conversion of that sensory evidence: the information coming through the eyes, being processed by the brain and being shipped out to circuits that control muscles.”
Watching Olympic figure skaters, snowboarders and skiers flip and spin through the air is disorientating enough for spectators, but how do these athletes execute such hair-raising maneuvers without becoming dizzy themselves?
Kathleen Cullen, a professor of biomedical engineering, studies the vestibular system – that is, the part of our body responsible for our sense of balance and motion.
If you were to plop yourself in an office chair and take a spin, as soon as you stopped, fluid in the semicircular canals in your inner ear would keep moving, giving you a false sensation of motion and making you feel dizzy. But athletes like figure skaters, Cullen explains, have trained their brains to quash that nauseating feeling.
“If you’re an Olympic skater, when you’re starting as a young skater, that would happen too,” Cullen said. “But if that’s something you’re doing day after day after day in practice… what ultimately the brain learns to do is better interpret the information that’s coming in from the semicircular canals, and over time learn to suppress that false input that occurs at the end of spinning.”
KEEP CALM AND CARRY ON
It might seem counterintuitive, but the more you want to win, the greater the odds that you’re going to fail. That’s the conclusion from research conducted by biomedical engineer Vikram Chib.
“My research generally is interested in how incentives influence your performance,” Chib said. “So, basically what’s happening in your brain that allows you process incentives and then sometimes causes those incentives to energize your performance in some cases, or sometimes make you do worse.”
In his research, Chib has found that when stakes are high, those who are most likely to choke under pressure experience intense activity deep in their brain in an area responsible for considering gains and losses. In other words, the more you think of the outcome of any given activity, the greater the chance that you will be distracted and your motor skills will be affected.
The most successful athletes, Chib added, are those who simply don’t worry about succeeding or failing and just keep calm and carry on and “do things habitually.”
“In terms of Olympic athletes, they have a lot of incentives on the line,” Chib said. “That worry about losing an incentive that you could possibly win gets you to choke under pressure. That’s what makes you worried about choking or worried about doing well, and that’s what kind of gets in your head to mess you up.”