Wednesday, February 17, 2010

The Olympic Art of Yawning

Snowboarders are flying through the air, moguls are being speedily traversed, skaters are gracefully gliding on the ice, and the Canadian hockey team is destroying the competition. What does this all mean? It means that we are smack dab in the middle of another awesome winter Olympics.

What interests me most about the winter games is the astonishing mental preparation and psychological strategies that all of the successful athletes utilize in order to perform their best in astonishingly stressful and nerve racking scenarios. I respect professional football, basketball, and baseball players enormously, but their day-to-day performance is nowhere near as meaningful as the performance of an Olympic athlete. In conventional pro sports there is a championship every year, so if you don’t win the Super Bowl in 2010, your sights are set on the 2011 Super Bowl.

The Olympics, on the other hand, come only once every four years, and the stakes consequently rise astronomically. Not to mention the insane pressure that each athlete’s home country places upon them. For example, when The Netherland’s Sven Kramer raced in the 5000-meter speed skating final this past Saturday it was estimated that 97% of the population of the Netherlands was watching Kramer. The weight of an entire country was on Kramer’s shoulders. He ended up winning the gold medal, and lived up to his country’s high expectations.

What allowed Kramer to win this race? Obviously, he spent long hours on the ice, had a solid strength and conditioning regimen, and some very strong genetics. But doesn’t every Olympic athlete possess all of these qualities? The simple answer is yes. So then, what allowed him to win the gold? It was his mental approach.

I am sure that Kramer practiced visualization and positive mantra sports psychology techniques to prepare for the race, but that is just speculation. I can guarantee that Kramer used one mental preparatory technique, because I saw him use it just before his race.

What was his technique? He yawned. Before each of his races last Saturday almost every time the camera went in for a close up Kramer was in the middle of a big drawn out yawn. I am sure that this sounds absolutely absurd, but there is a very logical explanation for it. When one yawns it triggers the neurotransmitters dopamine and serotonin, which directly correlate with a state of relaxation and calm. I am sure that Kramer and all of the other speed skaters in his race were extremely nervous and could have used some much-needed relaxation.

I have been watching a lot of the speed skating and Apolo Ohno and Shani Davis of the USA speedskating team have been using the same yawning technique before their races. Ohno has already won a silver medal and is in contention for two more and Davis is the favorite in the long track 1000 and 1,500. So, maybe there is a method to the (yawning) madness.

I am definitely going to test this out the next time I am nervous before a weightlifting competition.

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