For the last two weeks, the world has been watching athletes perform with superhuman-like ability at the Summer Olympics in Rio. From the television screen, the extraordinary feats of these competitors seem purely physical; but science tells us that much of their talents rely on what’s going on in their brains. In a past interview with the Dana Foundation, seven-time Olympic medalist Shannon Miller said:
The physical aspect of the sport can only take you so far. The mental aspect has to kick in, especially when you’re talking about the best of the best. In the Olympic Games, everyone is talented. Everyone trains hard. Everyone does the work. What separates the gold medalists from the silver medalists is simply the mental game.
With a total of 28 medals, competitive swimmer Michael Phelps is currently the most decorated Olympian of all time. As a restless child with ADHD, he used swim practice as “an outlet for his boundless energy and a lesson in self-discipline,” Phelps’ mother told the New York Times.
To help focus before every race, Phelps is seen wearing headphones and listening to music. In a recent article about “the neuroscience of ‘getting in the zone’,” a 2014 study is described where researchers found that listening to a preferred musical genre creates “significantly greater functional brain connectivity” in the system of brain regions associated with introspection, memory reprocessing, and daydreaming.
As told in a Huffington Post article, “The Brain-Training Secrets of Olympic Athletes”:
Many athletes have used the technique of “mental imagery,” or visualization, to up their game and perform at their peak. Research on the brain patterns of weightlifters found that the patterns activated when a weightlifter lifted heavy weights were activated similarly when they simply imagined lifting….One study…found that imagining weight lifting caused actual changes in muscle activity.
But it takes a combination of skills to become an athlete at such an elite level. Last week, we spoke with neurologist John Krakauer from Johns Hopkins University. He notes:
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…Anticipating what’s about the 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-physically human activities.
The Olympic games come to a close on August 21, but we can continue to learn from these super athletes and their ability to train both bodies and brains. While we may not necessarily be ready to compete in the 2020 games in Tokyo, at least we can better understand how self-discipline, visualization, and consistent practice can lead to our own personal triumphs.
– Seimi Rurup