Mind, Body, Performance
From the International Olympic Committee's Olympic Review, XXVI-27 June-July pp. 71-74 (1999)
||Allan W. Snyder
The Australian Olympic Committee initiated the
annual Edwin Flack lecture: an exploration of mind, body and
society, especially as it relates to sports. Edwin Flack won
two gold medals for Australia in the first of the modern Olympics,
1896. The inaugural lecture was presented at the Great Hall
of Sydney University by Allan Snyder, recipient of the 1997
International Australia Prize from the Prime Minister, and chosen
by the 1998 Bulletin/Newsweek as one of Australia's 10 most
creative minds. Professor Snyder is Director of the Centre for
the Mind at the Australian National University where he holds
the Peter Karmel Chair of Science and the Mind. He is also Professor
of Optical Physics and Vision Research and Head of the Optical
Edwin Flack was a giant! A truly great Australian.
He won two gold medals in the first of the modern Olympics in
1896. He also nearly won the marathon, but collapsed with physical
exhaustion in sight of the finish line. He gave his entire being
But, when you think about it, Edwin Flack was
a man possessed! Many might think him even mad! How else can
you explain why a person, for a mere abstraction mind you, would
actually drive themselves to physical collapse? How else can
you explain the single-minded dedication of an Olympic champion?
This is not just my assessment. Even Brooks Johnson
[Ungerleider 1995] , the great Olympic coach at Stanford University,
"There is no way you can do the things necessary
to be [an Olympic champion] and not be clinically neurotic and,
in some instances, clinically psychotic ... [champions] are
very abnormal people."
Olympic athletes? Abnormal people?
But, I ask you, up front, is there really any
difference between the so-called neurosis of the athlete from
that of the artist, the scientist or for that matter any individual
who commits themselves to realise a dream? In all cases, there
is a sacrifice of the pleasures in life as normally appreciated.
What elusive spirit sustains us through the agonising
process necessary to win, necessary to realise a dream? Answer
this question and we will have unlocked one of the mysteries
of the mind, we will have discovered the element in common with
all great achievers. Answer this question and we will have captured
the crucial ingredient which lets the human spirit soar.
Edwin Flack, two-time Olympic champion (800 and 1500m)
in Athens in 1896.
Mr John Coates, Chancellor Dame Leonie Kramer,
distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen. I salute the Australian
Olympic Committee for conceiving this annual event. And it is
a singular honour for me to stand before you in this magnificent
hall, at this illustrious university, ever more illustrious
under the dynamic leadership of Professor Gavin Brown, to address
issues of fundamental importance, issues that have tantalised
and often consumed philosophers and even athletes themselves
Issues of fundamental importance? You might even
ask does sport belong in academia? Many intellectuals have been
dismissive of the physical. They conceptualise body and brain
as separate in both structure and function. They see the physical
as an unnecessary distraction to the mental.
Veblen [Veblen 1934] , in his influential "Theory
of the Leisure Class" saw sports as a reversion to barbarous
culture -and most assuredly detrimental to scholarly pursuit.
But compelling research strongly disputes this
claim. In particular, the American neurologist Damasio [Damasio
1994] , found that decision-making is impaired in patients who
lack awareness of their body. Damasio concluded that the mind
both learns through the body and is profoundly influenced by
In other words, we interact with the environment
as an ensemble: the interaction is neither of the body alone
nor of the brain alone. Our very reality is formed through our
interactions with this world. Our concepts and our repertoire
of mental schema are powerfully influenced by the physical.
So, the ancient Greeks actually had it right.
Plato [Douillard 1992] especially advocated physical exercise
for developing the spiritual side of life.
And the reverse is true - our spiritual side
- our mind - is critical for exquisite physical performance.
Our mindset strongly influences our performance. But, this fact
is often difficult to grasp.
So, to set the stage, I want you to imagine two
different people looking at the identical cloud formation. The
portrait painter sees a face of dignity, while the ultrasound
technician sees a diseased gall bladder. This says it all. We
view this world through our mindsets [Snyder 1996,1998]. Mindsets
that are unconscious and are shaped by our past experiences,
by our culture, our society, and even our genetic make-up. Two
athletes may enter the race with similar bodies, even similar
training, but their mindsets will be different.
Remember Kieran Perkins at Atlanta? Remember that magical
moment when Kieran, after barely qualifying for the 1500
metre event and after being given up for lost by most
of the experts, went on a spectacular golden win for Australia.
Isn't this an example of the role of the mindset in
winning? And especially for winning in the face of adversity,
in the face of disbelievers, winning by coming from behind.
And, I assure you, sports doesn't have a monopoly on
those who come from behind to win. Just think of the many
writers, like Falkner, who persevered through years of
rejections, one book after another, before they achieved
acclaim. Or recall the myriad of artists like Van Gogh,
who painted without applause, prior to their recognition.
And, of course, there are legions of scientists whose
ground-breaking research was ignored by the establishment,
yet they continued on, they continued on to eventually
change the prevailing paradigm.
Kieran Perkins celebrates his victory
in the 1500m free-style event in
Atlanta 1996. Photo courtesy Aust.
Picture Library/Allsport/Al bello
Now, I can just hear many of you saying: okay,
I agree, the mind might have a role, but raw talent is the crucial
ingredient necessary to fulfil dreams. You have got to have
How else, for example, could Susie Maroney conquer
the 200 kilometres marathon swim from Mexico to Cuba?
But, listen to this. After her swim, Maroney's
long-term coach, Dick Caine [Jeffries 1998] , said and I quote:
"Susie had no talent whatsoever".
"She's a little person who couldn't even make
a final at a state meet - coming and showing the world that
on sheer guts and determination you can do anything you want!"
And, I assure you that this sentiment is merely
an echo of views held by many others. For example, the American
Bruce Jenner [Ungerleider 1995], one of the few in the Olympic
Hall of Fame, says: "Everyone is physically talented," - winning
has to do with your mental capacity.
So, if we are to believe the experts, raw physical
talent is not always necessary to be a champion at sports.
But surely, you say, talent must be necessary
to make breakthroughs in science. Yet, that myth has been dispelled
throughout the ages [Gregory 1987] .
For example, Darwin, Einstein and Edison were
very average students whose teachers, even with hindsight, were
hard pressed to say something particularly flattering.
Obviously this is a complex subject, laden with
minefields, but it certainly would appear that 'raw talent'
as we normally define it, is not crucial for success.
So what is it that differentiates the champions
from the rest of the pack? I believe that it is primarily due
to their mindset. And here is why.
Various studies [Franken 1994, Ungerleider 1995],
show that the great achievers often create dreams or visions
of exactly what they want to do and how they are actually going
to do it. Of course, the role of dreams and mental imagery is
legendary for those in the creative arts and sciences [Gregory
But if it works in the arts and sciences, could
mental imagery possibly be of any value for enhancing an athlete's
performance? Can you, for example, imagine athletes lying about
on couches mentally rehearsing every move of their event?
Now that seems a bit crazy, just thinking about
an event, could make athletes better at it? Yet, in one recent
study [Orlick 1998] , 99% of Canadian Olympians reported that
they used mental imagery as a preparation strategy - they actually
visualised their winning performance, step by step. Some for
as many as two and three hours at a time.
And, to add to the mystery, new research from
Manchester University shows that physical strength can be enhanced
by just thinking about an exercise.
What does all this tell us? Great achievers have
a vision that they will succeed and sometimes they even see
the steps leading to their success. So, in my opinion, what
makes a champion, and I mean a champion in the broadest sense,
is a champion mindset.
A champion mindset! The world is viewed in its
totality through this mindset.
And, if you have done something great in one field,
you are far more able to do it in another. Your champion mindset
is the transferable commodity and not the skill itself.
Take Edwin Flack [Veblen], after his double gold
Olympic win in 1896, he went on to lead a firm which ultimately
became Price Waterhouse Australia and New Zealand.
Take Roger Bannister, after breaking the 4 minute
mile, went on to become a renowned clinical neurologist. And
there are champions here tonight who transferred their winning
mindset from sports to other challenging endeavours.
It is our mindsets which ultimately limit our
expectations of ourselves and which circumscribe our boundaries.
It is our mindsets which determine whether or not we have the
courage to challenge others and to expand our horizons.
The celebrated Sigmund Freud aptly captures this
sentiment when he said [Jones 1961] :
"I am not really a man of science, not an observer,
not an experimenter, and not a thinker. I am nothing but...
an adventurer.. a conquistador - with the boldness, and the
tenacity of that type of being".
In other words, from his own assessment, Freud
was not especially skilled or talented. Rather, he had the courage
to put himself into the race to begin with. He had a champion
So, we can now see that the so-called neurosis
of the athlete to which I alluded earlier is no pathology whatsoever.
Rather, it is the athlete's inevitable single-minded dedication
to a passion. A dedication that is fuelled and sustained by
The great challenge for us now is to unravel
the ingredients of our mindsets, and especially to determine
how mindset is shaped by our genetic make-up, by our education,
by our culture, our society, and even by our ongoing emotional
I believe that sports provides a unique platform
for this exploration. And, who knows, training regimes may ultimately
be tailored to each athlete's personal background.
I have been exploring what it takes to excel
at sports. But, why do we ever direct our minds to sports in
the first place? Why is sports so incredibly alluring?
It seems quite bizarre that adults bother to engage
in sports. And even more bizarre, that hundreds of millions
of people worldwide are passive spectators of sports.
For example, traffic accidents have dramatically
fallen during the televised world series . And, not only the
traffic stopped. Viagra sales have plummeted during the series
. As Rupert Murdoch , says: "Sport absolutely overpowers film
and everything else in the entertainment genre".
Obviously, for something to be so alluring, it
must be appealing to our most fundamental human make-up. And
we would expect this appeal to be manifest across cultures and
It has! The ancient Egyptians and the people
of Mesopotamia had a tradition in athletics at least 5,000 years
ago. Tombs that are over 4,000 years old depict sophisticated
wrestling scenes. And sport was central to the culture of ancient
Greece: the Olympic Games are themselves nearly 3000 years old.
But, I wonder how many of us believe that sport
was brought to Australia by the Europeans?
Aborigines with boomerangs, late 1800s.
was chiefly used for
sports. photo courtesy AIATSIS.
For those who do, just listen to this European
account of first contact. It describes the Victorian Aboriginal
game of ball; a game which you might well consider to be a progenitor
of Australian Rules [Smith 1878].
"The men and boys joyfully assemble when the
game is to be played. They make a ball of possum skin - somewhat
elastic but firm ... It is given to the foremost player who
is chosen to commence the game. He does not throw it [as Europeans
do], but drops it and at the same time kicks it with his foot,
using the instep for that purpose. [The ball is propelled] high
into the air, and there is a rush to secure it - such a rush
as is commonly seen at football matches amongst our own people.
Some will leap as high as 5 feet or more to catch the ball.
The person who secures the ball kicks it again and again the
scramble ensues. This continues for hours."
Many other reports [Smith 1878, Roth 1987, Roth
1902] show that pre-contact Aborigines had an enormously rich
range of sports, employing balls, sticks and ingenious technical
innovations like the boomerang which, by the way, was principally
used for sports.
Of course, contemporary Australians have continued
this tradition of innovation by bringing the free style and
butterfly stroke to swimming; the crouched start to track; and
Finally, I want to emphasise that pre-contact
Aborigines demonstrated the qualities upon which the Olympic
movement itself was founded - fair play, competitiveness and
delight in one's performance.
These and many other observations about pre-contact,
non-industrial societies underscore the fundamental nature of
sports to our very human fabric.
Over the millennia, sports have been transmogrified
from a localised small scale activity like that of the pre-contact
Aborigines, on through to the Olympic Games of ancient Greece,
and then on to the truly global arena which it occupies today.
So what next?
Where is our vision of the future? What is the
challenge for the new millennium? We are, after all, limited
only by our mindsets.
Isn't the Olympic movement, with its global allure
and its dignity, the quintessential venue for the exploration
of human achievement? Human achievement - across the board,
across the spectrum.
Isn't the Olympic movement the ideal platform
for encouraging the cross fertilisation of ideas about performance
from every persuasion? Isn't the Olympic Movement ready to embrace
a larger vision of itself: one more passionate about performance
in its broadest sense?
And isn't Australia the ideal country to propose
a new dimension for the Olympic Movement? After all, we are
the great sporting nation, we are a great nation of innovators,
and in Sydney 2000 we herald the Olympics into the new millennium.
Ladies and gentlemen, imagine if we could focus
the momentum and the spirit of the Olympic movement into enriching
and expanding human performance panoramically?
Imagine an interactive, worldwide Olympic forum
on the study of performance.
Make this a reality and the human spirit will
soar ever more intensely, across this entire planet.
Make this a reality and the spirit of Olympism
will breathe through us all.
I am indebted to many individuals for their insight
and suggestions in the preparation of this lecture, especially
Jeff Bond of the Australian Institute of Sport, Michael Djordjevic
of the Australian National University, Kit Laughlin, physical
Herb Elliott of the Australian Olympic Committee,
Nick Green of the Gold Medal winning "Oarsome Foursome", Chris
Horsley of PA consulting, Kirsty Galloway McLean of the Centre
for the Mind, Nicolas Peterson of the Australian National University
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