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The Science of Sports: Winning in the Olympics

The Science of Sports: Winning in the Olympics

by Scientific American Editors

The Science of Sports: Winning in the Olympics by the editors of Scientific American

The Olympics are the world's most prestigious stage for athletic competition. Fans both casual and hardcore tune in religiously every few years to watch as men and women push themselves to the limits of human performance. But what makes a champion? Is it genetics? Hours of


The Science of Sports: Winning in the Olympics by the editors of Scientific American

The Olympics are the world's most prestigious stage for athletic competition. Fans both casual and hardcore tune in religiously every few years to watch as men and women push themselves to the limits of human performance. But what makes a champion? Is it genetics? Hours of training? A psychological advantage? Of all the athletes who dedicate their lives - and bodies - to achieving that perfect moment of triumph, why will one person or team win out over another? Science has some compelling answers, and in this book, The Science of Sports: Winning in the Olympics, Scientific American explores this topic from various angles. Beginning with Section 1: The Psychology of Winning, the book opens with a look inside the mind of an elite athlete and tackles questions of how to face a rivalry or maintain a positive attitude in the face of defeat. Other sections discuss the sticky issues surrounding genetic advantages and physical prowess, drugs and doping, injury and recovery, and - finally - the latest scientific advice for the rest of us mere mortals to be fit and healthy. You'll find both inspiration and answers in this indispensable book from the editors of Scientific American, the leading authority on science, technology and innovation.

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The Science of Sports: Winning in the Olympics

By Scientific American

Scientific American

Copyright © 2012 Scientific American
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4668-2410-2



The Psychology of Winning

Elite Athletes Have Faster, More Focused Minds By Michelle W. Voss

As a tennis fan, I marvel at Roger Federer's ability to gracefully execute some of the most difficult shots I've ever seen. Other sports have their greats: Lebron James on the basketball court, Michael Phelps in the pool and Lance Armstrong on the road. These are just a few of the athletes that continually wow us with their agility and uncanny power and strength. We know them for what they can do from the neck down. But what about their minds?

Over the last few decades scientists have started to look inside the mind of the athlete. What they have found is a brain not only finely tuned for the demands of a particular sport, but one that may also carry a mental advantage to situations beyond the sports field. This research also provides a unique context for studying novel and important questions about the human mind, such as how the mind and body work together to rewire brain circuits over years of practice. With increasingly sophisticated brain imaging techniques, we can also start to actually see what the brain is capable of at the highest level of physical and mental expertise. In turn we can see how the mind of elite athletes from distinct sports may compare to expert musicians, dancers, artists, yoga masters, or highly skilled video gamers. All this leads to a better understanding of just how flexible our brains are, and perhaps why we excel at some activities and not others.

For a long time, research on the athlete's mind focused on studying the athlete in the context of their sport. For example, we know that elite athletes are faster and more accurate at remembering and later recalling meaningful play formations from their own sport. They are also quicker and more efficient at searching a visual scene containing sport-specific information, especially when the target is something relevant to their sport, such as soccer players searching for the ball in a realistic soccer scene.

Research has also shown that expert athletes are better at anticipating the actions of their opponents and the consequences of those actions, based on sport-specific contextual information. For instance, an elite cricket player need only see the pitcher's preparatory arm movements before the ball is released to judge where the ball will bounce and its trajectory into the hitting zone, while non-experts are more likely to look at both relevant and irrelevant visual aspects of the pitch.

One research group in Italy investigated this same phenomenon in basketball. They found that elite players could predict the outcome of the free-throw earlier and more accurately than a group of expert viewers (e.g., journalists and coaches) and novices, by using cues from the shooter's hand movements at ball release. Before the ball even left the shooter's hand, only 486 ms after the shot motion started, expert athletes could predict success with greater than 30 percent accuracy, while expert watchers and novices were only at about 10 percent accuracy. At the critical time of ball release (781 ms after the start of the shot) experts were about 75 percent accurate while expert watchers and novices hovered around 40 percent. Even more fascinating, they found that what made the difference for elite players was the excitability of the brain area that would control their shooting hand. It's as if the expert brain was, subconsciously, imagining taking the shot themselves and the moment when the shot left their finger tips was the "aha moment," the best moment for predicting if the shot would drop.

This study demonstrates that just watching sports is not enough to develop the ability to anticipate what your opponent will do -- it takes playing.

What we still don't know, though, is how and under what conditions the athlete brain learns anticipation. Many hours of basketball practice may rewire brain pathways specifically for the mental demands of basketball. But are the number of practice hours all that count for this rewiring to occur? Or is it more a matter of what they focus on during practice? The expertise literature suggests that it is both how you practice and how much you practice, yet there is little to no brain-based evidence for how to optimize learning an athletic skill.

Another question is: after years of practice in a fast-paced sport like basketball or tennis, would an elite athlete acquire the ability to respond faster to anything in their environment? Does sport, in other words, sharpen the mind? Different studies have come to different conclusions. However, research by myself and colleagues at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, published in Applied Cognitive Psychology, compiled all the results from a variety of studies conducted over the years by scientists around the world. We found that, overall, elite athletes did show faster response times in tasks outside the context of athletics.

Similarly, a study by Leila Overney and colleagues at the Brain Mind Institute in Lausanne, Switzerland, showed that tennis athletes had greater precision in detecting differences in the speed of dots expanding toward them and showed faster visual perception than tri-athletes and non-athletes. At the same time, the same study showed that although tennis players were more accurate at finding a tennis ball in tennis snap-shots, they were no more accurate at finding the tennis ball in sport scenes unrelated to tennis. This study points out that some general mental abilities may be gained from sport training, while others may be sport-specific.

In our analysis we also found athletes have an advantage in what is known as "changing the breadth of visual attention." Visual attention is the ability to focus on what is currently relevant to whatever you are doing (whether it be one or multiple things) while ignoring distractions. Breadth of attention refers to how many things and how much of the environment you are paying attention to at any one time. For example, a wide breadth of attention is necessary for driving in a busy roadway where there are cross-walks with bold pedestrians jumping out at any moment compounded with bike lanes, merging traffic, potential stop-lights, and maybe even your GPS companion directing you where to go. Think downtown Chicago at rush-hour. Now imagine you find yourself lost and while at a stop-light you decide to really "focus" on the map on your GPS module. You tune out the radio, any yapping passengers, all street sounds and sights, and direct tunnel vision to the GPS screen.

Shifting the breadth of attention is essential in sports. A basketball player dribbling down the court must focus on the ball, their teammates, and their opponents, while filtering out the crowd. This requires broad breadth of attention. Free-throw time ensues and now they must tunnel into their pre-shot routine, the ball, and the basket.

So the next time you're watching your favorite athlete and you ask yourself "how do they do it?" - remember their athletic grace is rooted in as much their mind as their body. Somewhere where the two meet, years of practice and hard work have created a brain sculpted for their sport and perhaps beyond.

Mental Workouts and the Will to Win By Steve J. Ayan

The Olympic stadium was silent. The spectators held their collective breath. The 100-meter finalists, crouched against their starting blocks, raised their backs as the starter raised his pistol and announced, "Set ...!" Each powerful sprinter, poised to explode when the gun went off, was keenly aware of what hung in the balance. They had trained to exhaustion every day for years to prepare their bodies for this one race.

But had they disciplined their minds? The runner who would break the tape would need more than strong muscles, heart and lungs. He would need concentration, control, confidence — and an unerring eye on the finish line. At this tense moment, one mistimed twitch could cause a false start and cost him the race. But if he eased off in any way, his first steps would lag behind those of his competitors, guaranteeing a loss. "Bang!"

Sports psychology is a booming business. Part of the reason is because elite athletes in many sports are getting closer and closer to one another in terms of physical prowess and talents, leaving thoughts and feelings as the x- factor that brings victory. Many top athletes now find mental training indispensable — and not just for performing on race or game day but for getting the most out of daily workouts. Many seek help from psychologists, but others go elsewhere: Tour de France champion Lance Armstrong receives regular psychological exercises as well as a daily physical training plan from his personal coach, Chris Carmichael. Formula One auto-racing ace Michael Schumacher has a personal cook, Balbir Singh, who is rumored to double as his spiritual adviser. Others simply rely on personal rituals to focus their tennis serve or home-run swing.

Often there is little scientific basis for athletes' mental gymnastics, and the placebo effect cannot be completely ruled out, yet the practices seem to provide a tailwind. Studies show that athletes may profit most by building up psychological strength through three techniques: visualization, confidence and self-talk. The same exercises can work for recreational athletes, too.

See It

Although sports psychologists have supported athletes for more than 30 years, the profession was largely informal until 1983, when the U.S. Olympic Committee established a sports psychology registry. In 1986 the Association for the Advancement of Applied Sport Psychology was founded to promote related science and practices. Since then, the profession has grown briskly: for its 2004 conference, the association received 450 potential presentations.

The practice of visualizing an athletic movement in order to perfect it became popular in the 1970s. Tennis players were among the early adopters. A player standing quietly on the court with his eyes closed would imagine himself hitting the ball, thinking to himself something like: "My racket is an extension of my arm. My entire body is tingling with excitement, but I am utterly relaxed. I am enjoying every ball that comes flying toward me. I am absolutely sure that with my next stroke I can place the ball in any corner of my opponent's court. The court is enormously wide." Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, now at Claremont Graduate University, coined the term "flow" in 1975 to describe this kind of feeling: complete confidence in one's own actions, blocking out distractions, reveling in the experience.

To put herself into such an ideal performance state, an athlete seeks a healthy balance of strain and relaxation. She must become completely immersed in her own movements. A high jumper must see in her mind exactly each step of her run-up and takeoff and then watch her body glide over the bar. In most visualization training, this focus is achieved by learning to see and subsequently control each concrete component of a movement. In tennis, for example, each stroke consists of "swing, hit, follow-through." With practice, a tennis player can see the ideal motion with the mind's eye.

Visualization can benefit training, too, by helping to transform complex motor procedures into automatic movements. The effects on the body of visualization were demonstrated more than a century ago. In the late 1800s English physiologist William Carpenter discovered that imagining movements could elicit reactions in muscles. When we see a soccer player strike a ball toward the goal, our own leg muscles may contract, imperceptibly if not noticeably. This "ideomotor" (or Carpenter) effect, with repeated visualization, can make the real motion easier to perform.

More recently, brain researchers have studied this phenomenon with imaging technologies. Stephen M. Kosslyn, a psychologist at Harvard University, discovered that imagining a movement activates the same motor regions of the cerebral cortex that light up during the actual movement. Most researchers theorize that repeatedly visualizing the movement strengthens or adds synaptic connections among relevant neurons. Some basketball players and coaches, for example, claim that repeatedly visualizing the ideal arm and hand motions for a free throw from the foul line improves players' success rates in actual games: bend the knees, flex the elbow, cock the wrist, then let the ball roll off the fingertips.

And yet some studies indicate that breaking a motion down into parts and concentrating on them in succession can hinder fluid coordination. The alternative is to imagine the outcome — not the motion but its result, such as the ball dropping through the net. Golfer Tiger Woods reports that it is easier for him to sink putts when he imagines the rattle of the ball in the cup.

Believe It

Automating one's movements frees up the brain to concentrate on other aspects of an athletic challenge. But even more mind control is needed. Witness the so-called training champions, who perform outstandingly in workouts but falter or choke when the pressure is on during a real race or game. This perplexing situation is familiar to anyone who has smoothly practiced a joke or magic trick over and over but then stumbles when performing it before an audience. It can be difficult for an athlete facing high stakes, championships and sold-out stadiums to keep calm.

Confidence is the antidote, and it comes from a combination of courage, tolerance and attitude. The success of Ukrainian pole-vaulter Sergei Bubka, who won six world championships in the 1980s and 1990s, showed just how important courage can be. Bubka did not dominate his event because of extraordinary physical talent. In this physically and technically demanding sport, every vaulter's knees tremble just before he starts his approach to the bar. But not Bubka's. After hoisting his pole, he would run toward the pit like a crazy man, as if he had no fear at all.

Most champion athletes are usually in good psychological shape; if they weren't, they would not have reached such a high level of achievement. Various studies have found that top athletes have a greater ability to concentrate and a stronger will to perform than ordinary mortals. These athletes brim with self-confidence during competitions. Part of this surety is an attitude that is purposely exuded to intimidate competitors. Mostly, however, confidence stems from an athlete's faith in himself. That faith is built by regularly setting high but achievable goals in training and in competition. Attaining these goals and then subsequent ones builds motivation and leads to volition — imagining and achieving any goal desired. With full confidence, individuals can overcome enormous challenges.

For endurance athletes, a large part of their confidence comes from knowing how to tolerate pain, how to push their bodies right up to the pain barrier — and then go beyond it. When the 2004 Tour de France races reached the critical point where the leaders would finally break away from the head pack, Jan Ullrich's German teammate Udo Bolts would yell at him: "Torture yourself, you bastard!"

Professional as well as weekend athletes can develop the ability to shut out pain or fear by training hard. They must also expose themselves to the extreme demands of an actual event repeatedly until the ability to tolerate the intensity becomes routine. Furthermore, to rebound from the physical and psychic stress that these experiences impose, muscular and mental relaxation techniques may be in order. One way to reduce anxiety is autogenic training, which teaches athletes to repeat autosuggestive formulas such as "I am completely calm." Physical relief can come from practices such as progressive muscle relaxation, which involves alternating contractions and relaxations of individual body parts — say, a thigh or shoulder.

Learning to deal with stress and strain is a cornerstone of mental training — one that ideally begins well before a crisis. The possible consequences of constant pressure to perform — experienced today by almost every top athlete — are readily apparent. Fear of failure, inadequate recovery time and unending media harassment are fatiguing, especially for younger, less experienced competitors. When it appears these athletes are at the breaking point, that of course is usually when coaches call in a psychologist. But often it is too late. Many coaches call for expert help only when a situation is already critical. Studies indicate that more than two thirds of all interventions by sports psychologists are done during times of acute problems and crises. Instead of putting out fires, coaches should consider ongoing care, so mental problems can be caught and treated early, before performance suffers.


Excerpted from The Science of Sports: Winning in the Olympics by Scientific American. Copyright © 2012 Scientific American. Excerpted by permission of Scientific American.
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Founded in 1845, Scientific American is the longest continuously published magazine in the United States, and is the leading popular source and authority on science, technology and innovation. With a worldwide print and digital audience of more than five million people, fourteen local language editions, and a major new blog network, Scientific American engages, educates and inspires current and future generations of science-interested citizens and public and private sector leaders.

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