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Mario Liotti

Study targets the brain and athletic success

February 4, 2010

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Athletes seeking a spot on the podium at the Winter Olympics will need to be at their best mentally as well as physically.

Psychology professor Mario Liotti’s research shows that mood, along with the brain activity and hormonal changes associated with success or failure, can have critical roles in determining future competitive outcomes.

And knowing how to harness those changes for the best possible advantage is becoming a key driver for athletes’ coaches.

Liotti is working with Swim Canada psychologist Hap Davis and a team of others to study brain activity in elite athletes. The researchers are trying to determine what changes take place in athletes as they re-experience recent competitive experiences while watching videos of their personal successes.

Their latest study examined 26 elite athletes, including 14 who failed at Olympic qualifying rounds or at Olympic competitions, and another dozen who were medalists at the Olympic or world championship level.

Mood responses were tracked with questionnaires while magnetic resonance imaging monitored neural activity. Saliva samples before and after viewing provided hormonal data.

As expected, athletes re-experiencing successful performances felt significantly happier than failed athletes, and also showed increased neural activity in the right premotor cortex, an area of the brain that plans actions. They also registered an increase in the ratio of testosterone to cortisol. Athletes viewing failures showed no hormonal change.

Testosterone is typically linked to aggressive behavior and social dominance. In contrast, cortisol is associated with a stress response.

Liotti says high testosterone over cortisol can be explained by "confident competitive challenge" that is not accompanied by a correspondent increase in stress levels—which instead characterize the experience of competitive failure.

"We were interested to see how the levels of both of these hormones would change when the athletes were watching their videos," says Liotti, noting that little is known about hormonal responses associated with success, or how hormonal responses to success and failure compare.

In earlier tests (published in Science, 2006) with elite swimmers who failed to qualify for the 2004 Olympics, researchers found that the premotor cortex, which is responsible for arm and leg movements required in swimming, appeared inhibited as they watched their video clips.

The researchers suggest that could also explain why athletes have difficulty getting back on top of their game.

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