By the time Olympic athletes arrive in Pyeongchang, South Korea, they have trained their bodies to near-perfection. But it’s how well they’ve trained their minds that may determine who’s more likely to take home a medal.
Many scientists who study athletic achievement adhere to the belief that sports are just 10% physical. The other 90% is mental.
“The physical aspect of the sport can only take you so far,” gymnast and seven-time Olympic medalist Shannon Miller told The Dana Foundation in 2012. “In the Olympic games, everyone is talented. Everyone trains hard. Everyone does the work. What separates the gold medalists from the silver medalists is simply the mental game.”
They concluded that while some athletes are born with an innate tendency to win, others become better competitors by training their brains over time.
One of the most important things that separates the best from the rest is the sheer speed at which some athletes are able to make decisions.
“The brain is constantly bombarded with sensory information from multiple channels,” said Christopher Fetsch, an assistant professor of neuroscience at Johns Hopkins. This includes vision and hearing as well as sensors in the inner ear that relay information to your brain about your body’s orientation and movement in space (more on this below).
Fetsch said Olympic athletes “are making split-second decisions on the order of one-10th of a second or less – doing something that would probably take us more like half a second or up to a second to decide and act.”