Brainwave: The Skating Champion

michael palma for rma boitano+baumeister-1-32(Photo Credit: Michael Palma for The Rubin Museum of Art)

Have you ever noticed that it’s easier to resist the donut in the morning than the piece of cake at night? According to social psychologist Roy F. Baumeister, it’s because willpower is a limited resource that depletes over the course of a day as you make numerous decisions and perform acts of self-control. His studies suggest that decision-making and self-control use the same energy; after a day of decisions, self-control worsens.

In a TIME interview, Baumeister explained:

As you make a bunch of decisions, you gradually deplete the energy you have available and subsequent decisions are more passive and tend to go with the default option.

A study with Audi dealers [found that car buyers] were more effortful with their first few choices. [After that] they were more likely to take the default option, which can end up costing lot of money. They used up their energy deciding which of 200 interior fabrics they wanted and ended up buying lot of stuff they don’t need and spending extra money.

So what does this have to do with ice skating, you may wonder? On Wednesday night at The Rubin Museum of Art, Baumeister sat down with skating champion and U.S. Olympic delegate Brian Boitano to discuss his experiences with willpower and discipline as an elite athlete.

Boitano credits his passion for skating and work ethic for his success, stating that he wasn’t always the most talented competitor. To perform consistently under high pressure requires strict discipline and a regimented routine, factors that can help to conserve energy and willpower, said Baumeister, because they limit the number of decisions being made in the moment.

Similar to a muscle, willpower can be strengthened with regular exercises—whether electing to eat healthily or something more arbitrary, such as using your non-dominant hand to brush your teeth, he said. Food, rest, and exercise all help to restore depleted willpower—and are factors that are strictly regulated in the life of a competitive athlete.

The benefits learned from participating in sports can extend to other areas of life. Traditionally, part of the appeal of encouraging kids to participate in organized sports was so they could learn self-control and transfer the ability to other areas of life, Baumeister said. Boitano strongly related to this notion, crediting skating with teaching him how to study and to focus. Similarly to how he prepared for a skating routine by following the same pre-performance pattern—when to use the restroom, tie his skates, etc—he now follows a set pattern prior to taping his cooking show, “What Would Brian Boitano Make?” on the Food Network.

The Skating Champion evening was part of the Brainwave series, now in its seventh season. We’ll be covering more events in the coming weeks, so stay tuned (and for previous year’s coverage, click here). For event listing and tickets, visit The Rubin Museum’s website.

The Rubin Museum is a Brain Awareness Week partner.

–Ann L. Whitman

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