The Olympics will be captivating audiences all over the world for the next several days, and while most realize that it takes tremendous skill and physical fitness to achieve what these competitors have, there is a mental component as well. Being fit and performing well starts in the brain, with an attitude that faces fear head on and focuses on the goal of winning.
Researchers at Johns Hopkins University are studying the brain activity that's necessary to make it to the Olympic level. Their work is an effort to show that physical strength and athletic prowess are only part of the equation. To make it to the podium, Olympians must have the "mind of a medalist."
The team at Johns Hopkins has looked at a few different aspects of competing at the Olympic level. The first is about speed. When we navigate around our environment, the brain has to make several calculations. Can we cross the street before the car comes, can we hit the brakes if a hazard appears in the road? Christopher Fetsch, an assistant professor of neuroscience and a researcher in the university's Zanvyl Krieger Mind/Brain Institute explained how an Olympic skier, for instance, who is zipping down the slopes at an almost superhuman speed has to make several decisions as well, but much faster. He explained in a video found here that, "What sets elite athletes apart from us is not necessarily their bodies, their strength or their agility. What really sets apart the gold medalists from just the also-rans is the quickness and flexibility with which their brains are converting input from their senses into commands to move their muscles. These rapid-fire decisions that a skier has to make going down the slope will determine whether that extra hundredth of a second is gained."
Other researchers at the university are looking at the science behind Olympic performance as well. Kathleen Cullen, a professor of biomedical engineering and co-director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Hearing and Balance, is investigating the models that the brain makes in athletes who complete complex choreography, flips and other tricks in their sport. Figure skaters, snowboarders, and skiers are receiving input from their eyes, their muscles and the inner ear and they have to aggregate that information and adjust their movements to keep from having a crash landing or severe fall. In a video posted here she explains how the vestibular system in athlete functions differently, stating, "But there's a really profound fundamental thing that happens in the brain of people like dancers or skaters over lots and lots of practice. And that's basically a change in the way that the brain is processing information." From years of practice, the brain is rewired in these Olympians and they don't get dizzy or disoriented from all high-speed spins.
Finally, there is the mental pressure of competition. The level of stress that's going on in the minds of the young men and women who are going for the gold is almost unimaginable. Stress can either propel an athlete forward or cause them to choke at a crucial time. Vikram Chib, an assistant professor of biomedical engineering, studied brain scans in an experiment where volunteers were motivated by a substantial reward. While some participants had spikes of excited brain activity when getting the reward was within reach, Chib was able to show that those who have a more consistent level of brain activity are more likely to keep calm and medal on. His work can be seen in the video below. Whether it's speed, stress or staying upright, being an Olympian takes some pretty sharp brain skills as well as athletic ability.