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What A Sports Psychologist Has To Say About The Olympics

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Tokyo 2020 - as we all know, they are some of the most unusual Olympics on record. First off, they're taking place a year after they were scheduled. They're shrouded by a pandemic. There are no real fans in attendance. I mean, as if competing against world-class athletes wasn't enough pressure. So to talk about the routine ways athletes deal with their anxiety and how all of that is amped up during this Olympics, we're joined now by Mark Aoyagi. He's co-director of sport and performance psychology at the University of Denver.

Welcome.

MARK AOYAGI: Thank you for having me.

CHANG: So, you know, already psychology has been at the forefront of these games, given all the extra burdens that these athletes are carrying. But what's really interesting about these games is how the athletes are talking about mental health. Like, Simone Biles, Naomi Osaka, Katie Ledecky - all these Olympians are talking about the tremendous psychological stress that these games are causing. This feels like a real shift - right? - in how athletes are making their mental health issues public. To what do you attribute that shift?

AOYAGI: Yeah, and if I can, I'd like to actually draw a distinction between mental performance and mental health. They're obviously very closely related. But they are distinct in that mental performance, the focus is on being at your best, being able to perform optimally, whereas mental health is really about wellness and taking care of your health and wellness and ability to function and operate in the world. And so...

CHANG: Right.

AOYAGI: ...When we're talking about elite performance, there's really very little that's healthy about that. And so mental health in an elite performance context is actually oftentimes about managing the ability to function in an elite performance setting, recognizing that it's inherently unhealthy.

CHANG: Well, let's talk about the training for mental performance at these games. I assume that different sports require different kinds of psychological training, right? Like, how does mental preparation for a precision performance that lasts for several seconds compare to one where endurance is key?

AOYAGI: Yeah, in precision sports - and the best example I can give is in shooting. So shooting - you know, very precise. If you're off by a millimeter, you know, whatever the measurement is, you can, you know, go from being gold to not having a medal at all.

CHANG: Yeah.

AOYAGI: And so, you know, perhaps interestingly, they actually do a lot of cardiovascular training. And the reason for that is because the skill requires such precision that they want to slow down their heartbeat, because actually the beating of their heart would throw off the execution of the skill. And so they do this cardiovascular training to slow down their resting heart rate. And then in the competition, they actually squeeze the trigger in between beats of their heart.

CHANG: Wow.

AOYAGI: Whereas with an endurance event, obviously you'll see a lot more training of what we call preparatory or anticipatory, which is where you visualize or train with yourself in adverse circumstances. So you're behind in the race, and you prepare by responding exactly how you'd like to respond to that set of adverse circumstances.

CHANG: And what about the role of age here? I mean, as the brain develops in an athlete who is going from being a teenager to someone in their 20s, how does that brain development affect their decision-making and psychology?

AOYAGI: Yeah, there's a really interesting piece to that, which is that the prefrontal cortex, which is just kind of the higher-order thinking part of our brain, does not fully develop until age 27. And so many of these athletes have - developmentally, they don't have a fully formed prefrontal cortex. And what's important about that is one of the major roles of the prefrontal cortex is to model the future and understand what consequences our actions now will have in the future. And so, you know, we've heard about Simone Biles, for example, talk about how the skills that she performs are scarier now than they used to be. And part of that is now at age 24, she has a better understanding. Due to this development of her prefrontal cortex, she has a better understanding of what the consequences are of, you know, for example, crashing on a skill.

CHANG: That is so fascinating. That was Mark Aoyagi. He's a professor at the University of Denver.

Thank you very much for joining us today.

AOYAGI: Thank you for having me. I appreciate it.

(SOUNDBITE OF TYCHO'S "NO STRESS (INSTRUMENTAL)") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.