What We Can Learn from the Minds of Olympic Athletes: Q&A with John Krakauer, M.D.

Guest blog by Kayt Sukel

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The famed Olympic torch is now burning strong in Rio de Janeiro. The 2016 Summer Olympics are under way, and the best athletes in the world have come to represent their respective countries and compete for the gold. Time and time again, sports commentators regale us with stories about the necessity of a good “mental” game to find success in high profile events like the Olympics–and the scientific research, though limited, appears to back that view [See our paper: “Mental Preparation of High-Level Athletes”]. But what is it specifically about the brains of these athletes that allows them to reach these levels? John Krakauer, M.D., a neurologist at the Johns Hopkins University who studies human sensorimotor learning and performance, speaks with us about what we can learn from the minds of Olympic athletes, whether super athletes should be considered geniuses, and how those findings may one day inform rehabilitation after stroke or brain injury.

In 2009, you co-authored a review for Nature Reviews Neuroscience on the neural processes that support high achievement in sports. What inspired that paper?

It was a commissioned piece on the eve of either the Olympics or the World Cup. But since I do a lot of work on motor learning and skills, this is something I think about quite a bit. What is the relationship between cognition and skill? What is the difference between people with impaired motor systems, to us weekend warrior types that fall in the middle of the spectrum of ability, to these super athletes? What principles might be shared across the whole spectrum?

What stands out, of course, is that these athletes are supremely good at what they do. But how do they get there? Are there people who just have some kind of innate capacity? Is it about practice, the more the better—or specific types of practice? It’s a perennial debate that people who believe in sports genes and those who believe in the importance of practice engage in regularly. But, of course, we’re learning it’s not such an easy dichotomy. It’s likely a combination of the two.

So then the question becomes: Is there something qualitatively different about what you need to do to be average or a little bit above average in sport versus what’s required to be a super athlete? On top of those genetic and practice-related elements, are there some psychosocial differences, something in their upbringing that makes them as driven as they are to succeed in their given sport, at the expense of everything else? To make them get the amount of practice that is required to reach those levels?

Those are the questions we ask. And there is certainly evidence for all three elements playing a role.

Some studies suggest that there are structural differences in the brain between these super athletes and the rest of us.

Yes, but whether something is structurally different, I think, doesn’t tell us very much. It doesn’t tell us where those differences may come from. Were those differences already there? Or were they induced by practice? To the degree that human studies have been done, whether in athletes, musicians, or jugglers, it seems that there are some structural changes induced by training. But can we come up with the causal factors behind those changes? Can we use those factors to improve performance in other people? Those are open questions.

In the 2009 paper, you said you hope to inspire neuroscientists to consider how their basic research into cognitive skills might explain these athletes that seem to defy all explanation. Tell me more.

On one hand, the whole field of neuropsychology is predicated on learning something about the healthy brain by looking at the injured brain. The inverse of that may be true as well. We may be able to learn something more about the normal brain by looking at the super brain, too.

On the other hand, could the study of the normal brain give us insight into super athletes? I think the answer is probably yes. If you want to take any task, whether it is basketball, chess, or violin, and decompose it into its most basic pieces, you can see where to assign credit in terms of motivation, skill, attention, and the like, to better explain why certain people are so good, and what makes them stand apart from others.

You were asked once if basketball player LeBron James could be called a genius. Could we call these super athletes a type of genius?

There’s a tendency to believe there’s a difference between being good at sports and being good at more cognitive things. We have a whole dichotomy between working with your hands and working with your brain—this goes all the way back to Aristotle. And this dichotomy has seemingly been supported by neuroscientific research. The differences we have observed between procedural and declarative memory, for example.

But motor skills depend on knowledge of facts. We actually wrote an article called, “Is the Dumb Jock Really a Nerd?” for the New York Times to refute this dichotomy we keep holding up between the practical and the theoretical. One of the advantages of looking at athletes is that you have all sorts of nice variables you can measure. And you can begin to explain what athletes like LeBron James are doing based on what we know about the brain. Most of the credit should be going to the brain. Because skill isn’t about reaction times, strength, or speed so much as cognitive game. While I’m sure there are probably innate differences like height, weight, and such that are predetermined and help, what makes the top people so good is probably their cognitive skills—much in the way that cognition makes composers or top mathematicians very good at what they do.

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NBA All-Star and Olympic gold medalist, LeBron James. Photo credit: Shutterstock

So basic science that decomposes brain processes involved with different sports—all the things that a particular game or sport requires—and then begins to assemble them to explain what cognitive processes are involved and what the brain is doing with each aspect could be very informative. That kind of detailed behavioral analysis is easier said than done, though, since games like tennis or basketball are quite complex.

You also speak to the role of visualization and anticipation in these athletes.

It’s a huge benefit. These athletes have this seeming ability to predictively map the court or field, the other players, and anticipate what’s going to happen next better than anyone else. It’s been shown in tennis for athletes who are receiving a serve. They can anticipate where the ball is going to go before it’s even hit by an opponent’s racket. These athletes are able to develop better and ever longer temporal horizon.

Anticipating what’s about to happen next in a sport is probably very similar to being able to detect a forgery when you are an art expert. The more you discuss these aspects, the more you start to understand how cognitive it all is—and how similar it is to expertise in seemingly non-physical human activities. If you look at the original work on practice by Anders Ericsson, you see that the principles of deliberate, focused practice are just as applicable to chess as they are to violin players. No matter what domain of human performance you’re discussing, whether it’s theoretical physics or basketball, these tasks are made up of multiple, complex components—and expertise seems to be dependent on a deliberate and cognitive practice.

Your Nature Reviews Neuroscience paper was written in 2009. There has been more work in this area since then. If you were to tackle this paper again now, what might you add or take away?

That’s a good question. To the degree that there may be a genetic argument, I think it makes no sense to say that someone is innately and genetically gifted for tennis—that there is some gene that gives you an advantage for tennis, which existed before tennis even came along. In other words, there are no genes for specific sports, but there may be something to the idea of genetic predispositions for certain social interactions, personality types, the willingness to be on a team, to be coached, and so on. The genetic component is likely more broad and vaguer than has been previously suggested, but is likely important.

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US participant for the 2016 Summer Olympics, Serena Williams. Photo credit: Shutterstock

Motivation is another key component. New work shows that it’s not that the top athletes love practicing, even though they do practice a lot. So there may be some kind of predisposition that allows them to fight the boredom and consider delayed rewards that will come down the line from that practice.

Motivation is an interesting thing to study because it has both explicit and implicit components. Some may be motivated to practice because they want to please a coach or to become the greatest athlete in a certain sport. It’s a very conscious type of motivation. But we’re learning that, in terms of motivation and reward, there are a lot of implicit aspects. The basic science shows that monkeys who are given juice rewards at a particular target become faster and more skilled at getting to that target than others. How is that implicit motivation working? So it would be interesting to take a closer look at the psychosocial factors involved in sport and those different aspects of motivation, though there still isn’t an enormous amount of work on those aspects. It’s still early days.

What do you think about when you watch the Olympics?

I think about why we enjoy watching human performance as much as we do. In the World Cup, for example, tens of millions of people, if not hundreds of millions of people, watch grown men kick a ball around on a large lawn. Why is that?

And the Olympics will draw similar viewership. Why do we want to watch people running, jumping, and swimming? We do not know the answer to that question. We don’t even understand why we enjoy participating in sports. Most of the scientific work in motor control analyzes things like, “I need to get from point A to point B,” how do I do that? But we never talk much about the intrinsic pleasure of moving for its own sake, let alone why we like to watch other people move really well. So I’m interested in why I’m even interested in watching the Olympics in the first place. Perhaps it’s similar to understanding why we like art. But we just don’t really have an explanation for it.

Another thing I like to think about is what these athletes are doing to get to that level. What is it about their practice that made them so good? I will watch and then think about what kind of tasks I might be able to develop in the lab or with gaming that would allow me to approximate what we are seeing in sports—since it is quite difficult to study sports scientifically.

A significant portion of your research surrounds how to rehabilitate individuals after injury or stroke. What can super athletes, or athletics in general, offer to this endeavor?

I’d like to learn more about motivation. Weekend warriors, for example, play tennis on the weekend or play some soccer with friends and never get bored. The thing about sports is that you tend to enjoy them, and enjoy them across the whole of your life. But that’s not how people feel about rehabilitation. They dread it and are bored to death by it.

If we can learn why we find sports so interesting, fascinating, and fun, we could inject some of that into rehabilitation. And I imagine we’d get far more time on task with that kind of motivation and, in consequence, better results. If we can find out what it is about sports that makes you continue to play, continue to practice, and continue to be motivated and then put that into rehab, we can make much more of an impact.

But there is probably a lot more that could be translated as well. The worlds of rehabilitation, sports science, and neuroscience are different universes that operate with different kinds of specialists, different vocabularies, and different concepts. We could make a lot more progress on all fronts, from understanding what makes someone a super athlete to what aids the most progress in motor rehabilitation, if we could communicate more and find the deeper universal principles that allow these universes to be more seamlessly joined.

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