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What's Going Through the Mind of the Olympic Athlete?


Not only do Olympic athletes hone their bodies into high-performance engines. They also pay close attention to how they channel their thoughts.

Have you ever wondered what’s going through the mind of an Olympic athlete as she stands on the brink of the high-dive platform preparing for her final dive? Or the pained Olympic rower who’s 250 metres away from the finish line with fire in his lungs and a thirst for gold?

Not only do Olympic athletes hone their bodies into high-performance engines. They also pay close attention to how they channel their thoughts. A typical Olympic performance comes after years and years of dedicated training, and sports psychologists are playing an increasingly large role in that training.

Performance under pressure

Psychologists have studied many aspects of sport, including how high-level athletes perform under pressure. What is it that allows a tennis player to serve an ace to win the final point of a championship match? Or a golf player to sink a match-winning birdie?

A group of researchers at Oregon State University wondered this, too. So they looked at detailed play-by-play data for all National Basketball Association (NBA) games from 2005 to 2010 (a plum assignment if you just happen to be a basketball fan!). What they specifically studied were the free-throw statistics. This is when a player is allowed an unopposed shot at the basket after a penalty has been called against the rival team.

They expected to find that free-throw shooters were more successful when they were playing home games where the fans were supportive. What they discovered was that, in general, free throwers did do better at home.

Choking during clutch situations

But during “clutch” situations—when scoring the point would turn the outcome of the game during the final moments—players did worse at home than away. Their success rate was 6 to 9 percentage points lower when their team trailed by a point or two with 15 seconds or less left on the clock.

When they analyzed the games, they realized that when an away team free-thrower is preparing for his shot, home-team fans make a lot of noise and wave their arms in the air. On the other hand, when the home-team player is preparing for his shot, the audiences tend to be very quiet.

Too much self-focus?

As the researchers report, “It turns out that the latter environment is more difficult—choking occurs for the home team, which we argue is due to increased self-focus, hampering the natural ability of a player to make a free-throw.”

What does this mean for the Olympic rower with 250 metres to the finish line? No distractions—just keep the engine running—full steam ahead!



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