For Olympic athletes, the drive for perfection is almost superhuman and requires countless hours of training and repetition to ensure the mind and body work in perfect harmony. Dr. Lindsay Shaw is a senior sport psychophysiologist for the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee and helps athletes explore the brain's role in achieving peak athletic performance. “Changing the Games” is a 10-part video series produced in collaboration with Lyda Hill Philanthropies.
Changing the Games -- Stimulating the Brain for Peak Performance
KATHYRN TAPPEN reporting:
We’ve all heard “practice makes perfect.” And for Olympic athletes, the drive for perfection is almost super human and requires countless hours of training, and repetition again and again.
RILEY MCCUSKER (USA Gymnastics): You've put in so much like repetition into that so it's almost like relying on your muscle memory then.
CHRISTIAN TAYLOR (2-Time Olympic Gold Medalist): It was really just about repetition.
KATRINA YOUNG (USA Diving): Each movement is actually so many repetitions.
TAPPEN: Training the body and the mind to work in perfect harmony, so that their every move happens without even thinking about it.
LINSDAY SHAW (U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Committee): We’re going to use the headset to allow your brain to push yoursel a little bit harder so you can improve your aerobic capacity.
TAPPEN: Lindsay Shaw works for the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee as a senior sport psychophysiologist. Psychophysiology is a branch of neuroscience, or the science of the brain, that studies the relationship between a person’s mental state and the body’s physical and chemical functions. Shaw helps Olympic athletes explore the brain’s role in achieving peak athletic performance.
SHAW: My job is to help athletes learn about this connection between their brain and their mind and their bodies and then to learn to work with themselves more effectively so they can perform at a high level under pressure.
TAPPEN: One technological tool that Shaw uses to uncover the secrets of the mind and body relationship in Olympian athletes is called transcranial direct current stimulation, or tDCS. The system utilizes a headset that’s placed over the athlete’s scalp. It applies a small electric current to the motor cortex. The motor cortex controls movement by sending signals to the muscles in the body through neurons. Neurons are the basic units of the brain and nervous system that send signals throughout the body.
SHAW: When you stimulate the motor cortex, you change the way the neurons are firing and communicating with each other, and it allows for neurons to connect more easily with one another.
TAPPEN: Neurons constantly communicate with one another in the brain and form connections. When our brains develop during childhood and adolescence, these connections form neural pathways that help us learn and form memories. The brain continues to form new neural pathways throughout life, which is why we’re able to learn new skills. This ability is called neuroplasticity, or the brain’s ability to change. When athletes work out, the repetition of lifting weights, or running, or practicing a shot strengthens muscle fibers and forms new neural pathways.
VINCENT HANCOCK (2-Time Olympic Gold Medalist): How we train our muscles is through the repetitive nature of whatever we're doing. A lot of people call it muscle memory. It's not really your muscles learning it, it's your nervous system that sends the signals from your brain to your muscles to do the action that you desire it to do.
TAPPEN: Literally, the more an athlete practices, the stronger the neural pathways become, improving their skill and response time.
SHAW: So, the goal would be that you could either increase the intensity of the exercise or increase the duration of exercise.
TAPPEN: The tDCS headset allows athletes to practice repetition during a period of time where the motor cortex in the brain is hyperplastic, meaning it can change more easily.
SHAW: So he can wear the headset and then in this state of being hyperplastic, do some drills so that that is reinforced at the level of the neuron.
TAPPEN: In order to go faster, to jump higher, or to lift more weight, the brain needs to send a stronger signal to the muscles. The hyperplastic state helps accelerate this process, so elite athletes can reach those incremental gains, which can make all the difference at the Olympic level.
TAYLOR: At championships I always want to give it my all. This is when I'm in the best shape of my life. These are the moments where history will be changed.
YOUNG: It’s such a short time span but you train your whole life for it. That's what matters to me is doing my best for myself, my family, my coaches, all of my support team.
TAPPEN: By helping athletes to better train their brains, STEM professionals like Lindsay Shaw give Olympians that extra edge to win the gold.
SHAW: I think it's pretty exciting when you think about my role which is to help athletes train their brains and train their minds so that they are freed up to perform their best when it counts. It makes me feel really alive. And I think it makes the athletes feel really alive, too.
HANCOCK: Being able to walk in with 600 American athletes that are there for the same reason you are, supporting your country, the greatest country in the world, and having people chant USA, it does not get any better than that.
TAPPEN: While practice may never make 100% perfect, it certainly does make Olympians.
Christian Taylor, Changing the Games, Long Jump, Shooting, Diving, Gymnastics, Swimming, Brain, Motor Cortex, Neurons, Neural Pathways, Neuroplasticity, Psychophysiology, Tokyo Games, Olympics, Riley McCusker, Katrina Young, Vincent Hancock, Sports, Athlete, United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee, USOPC, 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games, Tokyo, Japan, Summer Olympics, STEM, Science, Technology, Engineering, Math, Lyda Hill Philanthropies, If/Then