SAN FRANCISCO--The summer Olympics only come around every four years, and for elite athletes vying for a spot on their national teams, failure to qualify can be crushing. Now, researchers have taken a look at how the brain deals with dashed Olympic dreams. Their findings hint at a possible explanation for why athletes who've suffered tough losses often have a hard time getting back on top of their game.
It's a frustrating problem for both athletes and sports psychologists, says Hap Davis, a Canadian psychologist based in Calgary. "You can get people feeling good again, but they don't perform at the level they need to," he says. To get a peek inside his patients' heads, Davis teamed up with cognitive neuroscientists, including Mario Liotti at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, Canada. The team used functional magnetic resonance imaging to examine the brains of 14 swimmers, 10 women and four men, who didn't make the 2004 Canadian Olympic team. Inside the scanner, the swimmers each watched a video clip of themselves swimming their failed qualification race and another clip featuring a different swimmer.
Not surprisingly, the swimmers rated their own videos more wrenching to watch. And their brains showed signs of their emotional pain, with heightened activity in the parahippocampus and other emotion-related areas that have been implicated in depression. (None of the swimmers had a prior history of depression). Moreover, the premotor cortex--a region that plans actions such as the arm and body movements needed to swim--seemed to be inhibited when the swimmers watched their bad race, the researchers reported here 9 April at a meeting of the Cognitive Neuroscience Society. To Davis, this suggests that bummed out athletes might perform poorly because their premotor cortex isn't sufficiently fired up.
After the first brain scan, the swimmers had 20-minute therapy sessions with Davis before hopping back in the scanner for another look at the videos. This time, the emotion-related regions were more subdued, and the premotor cortex was more active. That's encouraging evidence that the therapy works, Davis says. He suspects it might be possible to rev up the premotor cortex even more by having swimmers do calisthenics or lift weights right before a race.
"This is a spectacular demonstration that the sadness of defeat arouses the same areas deep in the brain that are active during depression," says Jaak Panksepp, a neuroscientist at Washington State University in Pullman. Panksepp says it's plausible that emotional arousal in these areas interferes with athletic performance by suppressing the premotor cortex, but more work will be needed to nail that down. "It's just an inference at this point," he says.