Teenager Chloe Kim showed off her athleticism as she soared into the complex flips and tricks that earned her a gold medal in the halfpipe snowboard competition at the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, last week.
Shaun White outperformed his competitors and earned a gold medal in the same event with gravity-defying athletic stunts.
While both demonstrated superior physical capabilities, their nearly perfect scores have as much to do with their mental prowess, scientists say.Skills such as speed, strength, balance and coordination help put athletes at the top of their games, but their minds help them make quick decisions, keep their balance and orientation when spinning, and not choke under pressure.
It turns out that the intense workouts of elite athletes train their brains as much as their bodies.
“By training both the body and the mind they can improve their skills in particular ways,” said Christopher Fetsch, an assistant professor of neuroscience and a researcher at the Johns Hopkins University Zanvyl Krieger Mind/Brain Institute.
As the Olympians in South Korea performed feats that seemed to defy speed and gravity, Fetsch and other Hopkins colleagues used the occasion to explain this brain/body connection.
The brain builds subconscious models for ordinary tasks such as walking or running, said Kathleen Cullen, a professor of biomedical engineering and co-director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Hearing and Balance. The brain forms these models use sensory information collected by the eyes, ears and other sensory organs.
Cullen said Olympic athletes build more complex models than the rest of us, enabling them to jump, spin and do back flips in the air. When Kim executed back-to-back 1080s, something no other woman has done in competition, she did so from models in the brain built off years of practice, Cullen said. White performed a double McTwist 1260 and back-to-back 1440s fostered by his own models.
“By practicing over and over again it solidifies these models, and what may make some people more naturally inclined to be athletic is their ability to build these models much more quickly and adeptly,” Cullen said.
These athletes also are able to make quicker and more accurate decisions, something that can be important in a competition where a hundredth of a second could separate the winners from the losers, Fetsch said. Their intense training strengthens the circuits that send signals from the brains to the muscles, he said.
Elite athletes also learn to quickly recalibrate if they veer away from the models in their brains. If they lose balance or are speeding along faster than normal because of the snow conditions, they are able to adjust, Cullen said.
But sometimes athletes do choke. Kim easily could have over-executed a spin and ended her routine in a crash landing, as many of her competitors did. She, White and many other athletes all have been in that position at some point in their careers. White’s performance this year was one of redemption after a lackluster showing four years ago. At the Sochi Olympics in 2014, he placed fourth after a performance that included falling twice.
Vikram Chib, an assistant professor of biomedical engineering at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, studies incentives and how they affect performance. When athletes start to worry about how they will perform or if they will make a mistake, they are most likely to choke, he said. If White felt a little uneasy about his performance and wondered if he could land a particular stunt, it could have been enough to make him fall.
Athletes who are confident and excited about a performance will show high levels of activity in the parts of the brain that show value. When they start to worry, the activity in that part of the brain declines, which hinders motor skills, Chib said.
He gives the example of a hockey player taking a penalty shot. The player may be confident about scoring at first, but if that player worries about failing, then they may miss. This can happen despite hours of training and even if they are as fit as their competitors, Chib said.
Chib is looking now at how to teach people to retrain their brains so they are less likely to choke. That could mean teaching them ways to stay even-keeled under pressure, so they don’t get too excited when they win and too upset when they lose.
“Those people that tend to choke less have more stable brain activity,” he said.
Olympians also have learned to ignore sensory signals, such as dizziness or motion sickness, that would prevent many ordinary people from becoming Olympic greats.
Ice skater Mirai Nagasu helped the U.S. figure skating team take home the bronze medal in the team competition. She started off her routine by landing a triple axel, something few women have done. Being able to keep her orientation while spinning in mid-air is something else athletes train their brains to accomplish. When people stop spinning, their inner ear fluid keeps spinning, which creates the feeling of dizziness. Ice skaters have trained their brains not too feel this.
“You look at these skaters and they can spin around many times and stop on a dime,” Cullen said.
It’s not just the elite athletes who think and act quickly; apparently the judges do too. They have to decide in mere seconds what distinguishes the better performance.
Neuroscientists at Johns Hopkins who have researched how brains judge and assign value found that the brain can begin processing value just 80 milliseconds after seeing something. That's less than a tenth of a second — and means the brain is basically figuring out if something is quality or junk at the same time it recognizes what it is. This is what helps Olympic judges decide which athletes deserve gold. The researchers’ findings were published online earlier this month in Current Biology.
Beyond the mental capabilities, the physical make-up of an athlete also can determine what sport they will excel in. For example, Michael Phelps has knees that bend back a bit and might give him a longer kick, said Dr. Claudia Dal Molin, an assistant professor of medicine at the University of Maryland School of Medicine.
Some people build muscle more easily, she said. Some muscle fibers are better for endurance, while others are better for power and strength, and people usually have more of one or the other. Height is something that we can’t improve on in the gym, but it could affect athletic performance.
“It explains why some people have different aptitudes for different sports,” Dal Molin said.
Mental capacity and natural athletic ability still aren’t enough in the end, some say. Years of training and dedication are needed.
“It is hard to pinpoint one thing that gets somebody to that high level,” said Dan Black, a certified strength and conditioning specialist at MedStar Lafayette Center. “It is a lifetime of work. You can have somebody that is incredibly talented, but if they don’t have the drive or dedication it won’t be enough.”