Athletes Think Better Under Stress

Amy Williams Bobsled: en.wikipedia.org

As if we needed another reason to envy gifted athletes – here is another:

A recent study commissioned by Dunlop Tyres in association with University College London (UCL) has found extreme athletes performed significantly better than average members of the public when subjected to physical and mental duress.

The parietal coretex (an area of the brain responsible for determining reaction speed) remained unimpaired when elite athletes were forced to complete tasks while under extreme stress. Not so for the rest of us.

UCL professor Vincent Walsh took five athletes – multiple Isle of Man TT winner John McGuiness, leading free climber Leo Houlding, racing car driver Sam Bird, wing-suit diver Alexander Polli, and Olympic bobsled gold medallist Amy Williams – and subjected them to a series of mental and physical pressures before engaging in timed visual tasks.

The athletes were worked to exhaustion before being challenged to identify a series of shapes and patterns.

Elite sportspeople, it was found, performed 82 per cent faster than average.

Motorcyclist McGuinness performed better under pressure than in the stress-free control study. While overall the athletes performed 10 per cnt better when under pressure.

In contrast, non-elite athletes saw their scores go down by 60 per cent.

The results are tunning.

John McGuiness: commons.wikimedia.org

John McGuiness: commons.wikimedia.org

They show that athletes can perform under intense distractions three times better than average members of the public.

Professor Walsh was still uncertain as to whether this ability was because of inborn neurological advantage or something developed through exposure to physical and mental stress through sport training.

Prof Walsh is adamant the skills can definitely be improved: “We might to be able to become a John or a Leo, but all these areas of the brain can make connections in later life, so we can enhance ourselves.”

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