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Making mental strength a key differentiator

Towards the end of Kyle Edmund’s breakout performance at the Australian Open, his coach Fredrik Rosengren was asked about his great leap forward. The British No 2’s improved serve and fitness had helped, the Swede acknowledged – but there was something else, too. “You have to believe you can do it in tough situations,” said Rosengren, who stressed that Edmund now had the “mindset” to go deep into grand slams.
Belief. Mind over matter. Taming your inner chimp. Hang around elite sports people long enough and you will hear multiple variations on the theme. The race to run a sub-two-hour marathon, for instance, is sometimes framed as much in terms of psychology as physiology and technology.
Of course, if it was that easy to trick our minds into running much faster, or making the latter stages of major tournaments, we would all be doing it. That said, how the brain affects performance is increasingly a major battleground in sports science, as Endure, a fascinating new book by the scientist and writer Alex Hutchinson, makes clear.

Did you know, for instance, that doing mundane mental tasks before exercise can make people underperform? Hutchinson quotes a study by Professor Samuele Marcora where 16 volunteers spent 90 minutes either watching a bland documentary or performing dull tests on a computer before trying to maintain a certain power on a bike for as long as possible.
The study found that those who did the mentally draining computer game gave up 15.1% sooner – even though the physical data showed no difference between the two groups. As Hutchinson notes: “The only difference was that, right from the very first pedal stroke, the mentally fatigued subjects reported higher levels of perceived exertion. When their brains were tired, pedalling a bike simply felt harder.”
In another study 13 volunteers were paid to ride an exercise bike at a predetermined pace for as long as possible. This time, as they pedalled, a screen flashed rapid-fire images of happy or sad faces at them in 16-millisecond bursts. The cyclists who were shown happy faces rode, on average, for just over 25 minutes – three minutes more than those shown sad faces.
Recent research has also suggested that smiling during races can improve running economy, while even positive “self-talk” – such as “feeling good!” – has been shown to improve performance in another cycling-to-exhaustion test: cyclists who used these phrases lasted 18% longer than a control group.
Most of these studies have been conducted on amateur athletes but many in elite sport are keeping a tigerish eye on the results. Three years ago I chatted to Sir Dave Brailsford, the Team Sky principal, about his trip to Silicon Valley, which involved talking to scientists about using cranial stimulation to improve endurance capacity. “When the brain goes ‘right, I better close down and stop’, they think the cranial stimulation can override that, and allows you to compete closer to your body’s capability, which is interesting.”

Such theories might sound worthy of Dr Frankenstein but they are being put to the test. Hutchinson visited Red Bull’s headquarters in California where several dozen researchers tested elite athletes “by trickling a small electric current through the brain’s motor cortex”. At one stage the triathlete Jesse Thomas had 17 devices stuck to his body and another 30 wires attached to his brain during an all-out four-kilometre cycling time trial.
So far these results are inconclusive. But Ross Tucker, a world-renowned sports scientist who also studies how the brain regulates performance and physiology, is sceptical. “Even if stimulating the brain of an elite athlete who is already very near the limit of their physiology does work, it might push the physiological ‘stress’ just that little bit further, over the limit, and eventually the whole system – brain plus body – will make them pay for it,” he says, pointing to research suggesting the body also plays a significant role in the whole performance regulation process.
Hutchinson also tried training his brain with Marcora’s “mind‑numbingly boring” tests before running a marathon but the results were not clear as he got injured. Tucker, though, is dubious about the benefits – pointing out that while he has heard of some “very high-profile” Tour de France cyclists trying brain training methods, they are unlikely to work in elites “because they are already at the limit of their fatigue reserves”.

The boundless search for an edge also continues in other areas. As Hutchinson notes, the US Olympic BMX racing team have even tried “mindfulness” training, with their coach noting improvements in their race performance – “Their body language is calmer in the gate … they move their hands less on the bars, and they get out a little faster” – but whether such anecdotal evidence will convince everyone seems unlikely.
So where does that leave us? As Tucker points out, there is no doubt that psychological factors hold many potential gains, and that belief may be one of them. In fact, you see this most clearly in its absence – a lack of self-belief that prevents an athlete from fulfilling their potential. “But the dichotomy between ‘mind’ and ‘matter’ is, I think, misleading, because ‘mind’ is intrinsically linked to the ‘matter’,” he says. “Perhaps you can say brain matter over body matter, but even that’s false, because one doesn’t function independently of the other.”
In Tucker’s view once you understand this, then these simple “tricks” to bypass a regulated, integrated system start to look far less effective. Even so, it’s a surefire bet that scientists will keep pushing to find a fresh mental edge.

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