Friday 21 October 2016

Tests on elite athletes show they think better under pressure

Published 17/10/2016 | 00:11

British Touring Car racing driver Colin Turkington was one of the elite group tested
British Touring Car racing driver Colin Turkington was one of the elite group tested

Top athletes and racing drivers think faster and more accurately than the average person when under pressure, research has shown.

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A study found that their memory performance was 20% better and the speed of their mental processing was 10% more rapid.

The aim was to test the theory that because of their training elite competitors have an enhanced ability to handle intense situations and emotions.

Taking part in the study were British champion downhill skater Peter Connolly, leading climber Louis Parkinson, multiple Isle of Man TT winner John McGuinness, big wave surfer Andrew Cotton, two-time British Touring Car champion Colin Turkington and Le Mans racing driver Oliver Webb.

Their performance in a series of tests each lasting up to an hour was compared with that of six volunteers who had no special training in competitive sport.

Lead researcher Professor Vincent Walsh, from University College London's Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience, said: "These elite athletes perform tasks that many of us could never comprehend but what is fascinating is their mind-set when tackling such challenges.

"When some decisions can be the difference between success and failure, it is perhaps unsurprising that the study showed that athletes were consistently several seconds faster when performing their tasks.

"A few seconds or a few per cent may not sound much but this is a long time in sport and is the difference between winning and losing."

The study, commissioned by Dunlop Tyres, involved exposing participants to stressful images while asking them to carry out challenging tasks, a recognised psychological method of assessing mental performance under pressure.

Prof Walsh added: "The athletes were more accurate overall in their memory tasks following exposure to negative stimuli whereas the non-athletes were disturbed by the stimuli.

"In some cases, the non-athletes' performance fell apart in terms of speed of memory when put in difficult and intense situations. Conversely, the athlete's responses often improved.

"A lot of this makes sense, in particular in the case of rock-climbing or motor racing, where the athletes are conditioned to negate dangerous situations and need to make split second decisions."

Kate Rock, from Dunlop Tyres, said: "Understanding how athletes perform when the stakes are so high and under so much pressure was incredibly fascinating. From rock climbing, car racing, big wave surfing or motorcycle racing, these athletes often have to stay in control of their natural fears to achieve their goals."

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