Like millions of others worldwide, I’ve spent many of my nights recently glued to the coverage of the Olympics. As I watch the gymnasts swinging onto the uneven bars, the divers launching themselves from their boards and the volleyball players throwing themselves enthusiastically into the sand, all I can think is, “How do they do it?”
Our own Ben Mauk began to explain the technicalities of competition and the competitive edge in his recent blog, “Marathon Mind.” My question is, how do Olympians handle the pressure?
According to this fascinating page on stress and the brain from the Franklin Institute, whenever we perceive a threat—for instance, another competitor closing in on the gold—our sympathetic nervous systems trigger our adrenal glands to produce the hormone adrenaline. As adrenaline is released, our senses heighten, memory sharpens and our sense of pain diminishes (at least temporarily).
This adrenaline rush might explain the gold-medal performance of gymnast Kerri Strug. At the 1996 Olympics, Strug missed on the vault and injured her ankle but then went on to nail a perfect finish on the second vault. After that landing, she collapsed in pain and was carried from the floor. It seemed an almost superhuman feat. No doubt Strug’s body was full of adrenaline, pushing her forward until she had reached the safety of having finished her routine.
As the Olympians are receiving this adrenaline rush, the area of their brain known as the frontal lobe is also particularly active. According to The Dana Guide to Brain Health, the frontal lobe controls so-called “executive functions” such as recognizing the consequences of your actions (if I score this high, where will that put me in the rankings?), choosing between alternatives (to do a triple twist or a measly double?) and modulating socially appropriate responses (it is not acceptable to flee the arena in fear or trip the competitor next to me).
The Olympics are truly a full-body event. And, the Franklin Institute page points out, while chronic stress can shut down other body systems and make us sick, short bursts of stress do not have the same effect. As our mind struggles to overcome challenges in the moment, growth occurs in the brain as new connections are formed. Being an Olympic athlete may not only make you fit and famous—it may help sharpen your intellect! I wonder if I get the same benefits from cheering on the sidelines.