One of the big questions people are asking in the lead up to the Tokyo Olympics is how athletes are going to react to competing in an empty stadium – or alternate venue – without a spectator in sight. I was interviewed about this by Fran Molloy back in April, for Macquarie University’s Lighthouse. This was back when it looked like domestic spectators would be allowed.
My take, in pull quotes:
The audience is just one of the many different factors that can positively or negatively influence performance. […] This year’s athletes are also dealing with COVID-related stressors, whether from living in a bubble or from the massive disruptions to training including the year-long postponement and the lack of competition over the last year and a half.
Every athlete will respond differently, and that’s what makes watching sport so exciting – we never know who is going to win the race when that start gun fires.
Athletes who succeed at the top levels go through an ongoing process of dealing with change, challenge and fluctuation.
For earlier peer-reviewed journal articles on the overlapping experiences of athletes and spectators, explored through case studies on mountain bike racing, seek out these two. Incidentally, this topic is what got me into research as a long-term career choice:
Hosting the Olympics in the middle of a pandemic is certainly a controversial choice. I hope, above all, that people are able to stay safe, and those athletes who are unable to compete due to thes – and related – circumstances are able to find alternate avenues to do what they do best.
To perform consistently in the face of ongoing fluctuations in and from multiple sources, skilled performers must work with, rather than against, variability. This means developing strategies for monitoring fluctuations, for predicting their potential impacts.
Given the number of academic disciplines I work in and across (performance studies, cognitive science, philosophy, anthropology, among others) and my desires for research to be accessible to a range of readers and genuinely reflect real world experiences, this new journal article weaves together a few different interests. It’s about skill theory and my transdisciplinary take on it, managing physiological and psychological fluctuations, and working with anxiety (not against it). It’s also about trapezes, vampires, helping hands, a lifetime of bike riding, several years of physio, and the joys of cognitive ethnography, theory building and inhabiting a determined body.
For our contribution – ‘Embodied experience in the cognitive ecologies of skilled performance‘ – we take a brief tour through some of the existing research on experts and embodied expertise and explore some of the many, varied (and quite cool) methods for producing this. Contrary to the view that experts can’t accurately recall or articulate what they did and why when the pressure is on, we finish by looking at a case study from road cycling that shows just how much some people can tell us about their own performance processes – why they did what they did, when they did – and why this is so incredibly valuable to researchers interested in skilled performance processes. The chapter is also a plea to more researchers to study expertise in the complex, unpredictable settings where that expertise is deployed: out in the world rather than in a lab or other controlled environment. (Although the lab studies sure do teach us a lot as well. Truth be told, I often want to share this chapter with researchers I look up to in a range of different disciplines and say, ‘Work with us! This is what we bring to some of the questions that you are interested in as well.’ Collaboration and healthy interdisciplinarity for the win!)
“Skilled practitioners think strategically and flexibly to cope with challenges as they arise and increase their chances of success.”
This is why athletes returning to a sport after a break may do far better than expected compared to considering their physical form alone. Sharp thinking can also be the difference between going well once or twice, and performing consistently when risk, pressure or other stakes are high.
I was recently interviewed about these topics by Fran Malloy for a feature article, “The Science of the Sporting Comeback”. This story was published on Macquarie University’s Lighthouse website as part of Brain Awareness Week. It reflects the kinds of questions we ask, answers we are finding, and research we get excited by, in the Cognitive Ecologies Lab in the University’s Department of Cognitive Science.
If you’re curious to learn more about the mental side of sport, or an enticing overview of the research I do and what drives it, or even why mountain biking provides such terrific opportunities for learning more about these topics, please follow this link and enjoy the read.
Image: Gaye Camm rides the exit line from the ridiculously fun Trouty trail in Derby Tasmania, without having seen it before suddenly being on it. There are some fascinating cognitive processes involved in staying upright in this scenario!