Science 1 August 2008:
Vol. 321. no. 5889, pp. 626 - 627
For Olympic athletes, physical strength, speed, and stamina are a given. But when elite competitors go head to head, it can be the mind as much as the muscles that determines who wins.
A collaboration between sports psychologists and cognitive neuroscientists is trying to figure out what gives successful athletes their mental edge.
One focus is why some athletes rebound better than others after a poor performance.
Even at the Olympic level, it’s not uncommon for an athlete to blow a race early in a meet and then blow the rest of the meet, says Hap Davis, the team psychologist for the Canadian national swim team.
To investigate why–and what might be done about it–Davis teamed up with neuroscientists including Mario Liotti at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, Canada, and Helen Mayberg at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia.
The researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to monitor brain activity in 11 swimmers who’d failed to make the 2004 Canadian Olympic team and three who made the team but performed poorly.
The researchers compared brain activity elicited by two video clips: one of the swimmer’s own failed race and a control clip featuring a different swimmer.
Watching their own poor performance sparked activity in emotional centers in the brain similar to that seen in some studies of depression, the researchers reported in June in Brain Imaging and Behavior.
Perhaps more tellingly, the researchers found reduced activity in regions of the cerebral cortex essential for planning movements.
Davis speculates that the negative emotions stirred up by reliving the defeat may affect subsequent performances by inhibiting the motor cortex.
Davis and neuroscientist Dae-Shik Kim at Boston University (BU) School of Medicine are now using diffusion tensor imaging to visualize the connections between emotion and motor-planning brain regions.
Kim hypothesizes that these connections might differ in athletes who are better able to shake off a bad performance. So far his team has scanned about a dozen BU athletes.
Meanwhile, Davis and collaborators have been looking for interventions that would perk up the motor cortex.
Additional fMRI studies, as yet unpublished, suggest that positive imagery–imagining swimming a better race, for example–boosts motor cortex activity, even when athletes see a videotaped failure. Jumping exercises have a similar effect, Davis says.
The work has already changed the Canadian team’s poolside strategy, he says: “We pick up on [any negativity] right away and intervene.”
Davis has the swimmers review a video of a bad performance within half an hour and think about how they would fix it. Anecdotally, it seems to be working, he says. “We’re seeing more people turn it around.”
The fMRI findings suggest that quick, positive intervention helps athletes bounce back, says Leonard Zaichkowsky, a sports psychologist at BU who collaborates with Davis and Kim.
But coaches often take a different approach with athletes. “Typically what happens is they’ve got hard-assed coaches reaming them out for a bad performance,” he says.
“It’s the opposite of what they should be doing.”