Elite athletes crushed by failure in Olympic qualifying

May 04, 2006, volume 36, no. 1
By Marianne Meadahl

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Failing to qualify for a spot on an Olympic national team can be crushing for an elite athlete.

A new study sheds light on why that failure may make it even tougher for these athletes to get themselves back into contention, and how therapy can help.

Working with Swim Canada psychologist Hap Davis, Simon Fraser University psychology professor Mario Liotti and a team of researchers found that a region of the brain that plans actions - a part of the premotor cortex, which is responsible for the arm and leg movements required in swimming - appeared inhibited when the athletes' brain activity was monitored as they watched a video clip of their failed qualifying performance.

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

Liotti and colleagues used functional magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to assess the brain activity of 14 Canadian swimmers who didn't make the 2004 Olympic team. Tests were carried out at the University of British Columbia's high-field MRI centre. While in the scanner, each of the 10 men and four women watched a video clip of their failed qualifying performance as well as a clip of a different swimmer. The athletes' brains showed signs of heightened activity in areas that have been implicated with depression, suggesting feelings of emotional pain, Liotti notes. However, he calls the shut-down of the premotor cortex “an unexpected and most significant finding,” adding that further study will follow.

“For elite athletes, who are looking at a fraction of a second making the difference in a key competition,” he says, “anything that affects their motor system could impact the outcome of their performance.”

Each swimmer went through a short therapy session with Davis before reviewing their clip a second time. The premotor cortex was more active during the second viewing of the failed trial, providing evidence that the therapy works.

SFU psychology professor Neil Watson and UBC researcher Elton Ngan were among others involved in the study. The team's research was recently presented to the Cognitive Neuroscience Society and is featured as a headline story in the April 14 edition of Science (www.science.com).

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