Mind of a medalist

For Olympic athletes, world-class brain power can separate the best from the rest

Lightning-quick decision making can often be the difference between winning gold and heading home empty handed, Johns Hopkins brain scientist says

Video: Len Turner and Dave Schmelick

Athletes who make it to the Olympics have the speed or strength or whatever physical skills it takes to be among the best in the world in their respective sports. But Johns Hopkins University scientists say those who ultimately bring home gold have also honed the mind of a medalist.

Some of these athletes are born with brains inherently more suited to winning, says Christopher Fetsch, an assistant professor of neuroscience at Johns Hopkins and a researcher in the university's Zanvyl Krieger Mind/Brain Institute. Fetsch studies how the brain makes decisions, weighing information coming in from the various senses. He knows elite athletes are making these choices faster and more accurately—at least when it comes to decisions related to their sport.

"What really sets apart the gold medalists from just the also-rans is the quickness and flexibility with which their brains are converting input from their senses into commands to move their muscles."
Christopher Fetsch
Johns Hopkins brain scientist

Take Olympic skiers. They fly down the slope and see a gate. Go left or right? It's a seemingly easy choice, but a very tough computational challenge for the brain. The skiers must evaluate what's ahead, the feel of the snow pack, speed, the tilt of the body. But because they've skied slopes like this thousands of times, by the time they're on an Olympic course, at that gate, their brains know just how to merge this disparate sensory information.

Though the brain of someone who's never skied would be at a loss, the Olympian's brain has expertise at solving this precise equation involving speed, snow, and other variables. In about the time it takes to blink, the skier has settled on an informed plan.

The entire run is a sequence of these decisions.

"What sets elite athletes apart from us is not necessarily their bodies, their strength, or their agility," Fetsch says. "What really sets apart the gold medalists from just the also-rans is the quickness and flexibility with which their brains are converting input from their senses into commands to move their muscles. These rapid-fire decisions that a skier has to make going down the slope will determine whether that extra hundredth of a second is gained."

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