Brains over Brawn for Older Olympians

The average age of the United States women’s gymnastics team is 16; five of the six American male gymnasts can’t legally drink. Most other countries field similarly young teams. And then there are Oksana Chusovitina of Germany and Jordan Jovtchev of Bulgaria. At 37 and 40, respectively, they could easily be mistaken for parents of the competitors. But they are legitimate medal contenders—Chusovitina in the vault and Jovtchev in the rings.

The Olympics, particularly the gymnastics events, are physically grueling even for the younger athletes. That these two “elderly” Olympians can withstand the physical toll on their bodies is remarkable, for sure. But what about the mental aspect of high-level competition? That, too, is not easy for older athletes. From Dana’s briefing paper:

Dana Alliance member Abigail Baird, a neuroscientist who studies the teenage brain at Vassar College, says the teen years may be the best time to foster that kind of motivation and mental focus.

“What’s better than being on a winning team? In teens, we’ve learned that it’s not so much about delivering the reward as it is about anticipating the reward,” she says. “The nucleus accumbens is really sensitive to the anticipation of that reward. I would assume that a lot of athletes need that to make the kind of commitment that elite sports require,” she says. “There’s also a huge social component of what motivates adolescents to perform their best. There is a huge neural buzz associated with being included and liked by your peers during adolescence. Few things accomplish that as well as being a star athlete on a team with your friends. When you put all of that together, I don’t think there is a better situation to build up the kind of motivation that will elevate great athletes to truly exceptional levels of performance.”

This helps explain Chusovitina’s drive to become a junior champion in the 1980s or how Jovtchev made it to the Olympics 20 years ago. But for them to maintain that level of excellence for so long, to stay motivated to compete after already accomplishing so much, is perhaps more impressive than their bodies not breaking down. It’s one thing to be able to do something; it’s another to want to do it.

Then again, in a sport where practice is so important, no competitors have logged more practice hours than Chusovitina or Jovtchev, even if they have had to cut back as they’ve aged. “Young gymnasts must do thousands of repetitions to develop aerial awareness and muscle patterns that eventually become second nature,” a coach told the New York Times. “[Chusovitina’s] got all that down now.” From the Dana briefing paper:

That practice is key. Grafton’s lab has found that action representations rely on a dedicated brain network, called the action/observation network, which includes the temporal cortex, frontoparietal cortex, and motor cortex. This network allows an athlete to mentally rehearse movement, to learn from observation and to sense subtle actions in other athletes. It also aids in breaking down movements into simpler “chunks” to facilitate learning. Over time and extended practice, other areas including the basal ganglia combine movements into longer chunks. This is critical for allowing athletic performance to become automatic.

Of course, that doesn’t make the feats of older Olympians any less impressive. Simply because their muscles “remember” what to do doesn’t mean it is easy for them to perform the tasks. And only the athletes themselves know where their motivation comes from.

Chusovitina will compete in the men’s vault final on Sunday, August 5; Jovtchev is in the still rings final the following day.

–Andrew Kahn

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