Sporting Jitters Offer Insight Into The Human Brain

French neuroscientists are probing the workings of the human brain through the way the world’s top athletes perform under pressure.

Ayrton Senna (Stu Seeger)
Ayrton Senna (Stu Seeger)
Alain Perez

"It's all mental," must be one of the most loved phrases of sports commentators. Every time a skier misses a gate, a goalkeeper gives up three goals in the last 15 minutes, a tennis player double faults on match point, it is always because the athlete could not "cope with the pressure." The main culprit: stress - a sort of inner enemy that completely blocks the neurons at the crucial moment.

"There are two types of stress: the first is positive and gives access to the maximum level of performance; the second is negative and wreaks havoc within the reward circuit," explains André Nieoullon, president of the French Society for Neuroscience.

Top athletes have a particular way to deal with this aspect of their life. "Movements must become a reflex, so that athletes can focus on analyzing the situation, and on how to best manage the environment of the competition, from atmospheric conditions to the other competitors' attitude," says Sébastien Flute, a French archer who won a gold medal at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics.

How to be psychologically prepared for D-day, and to avoid the famous fear of defeat, is a challenge facing all top athletes, except perhaps certain football players. "Athletes must show their best right away. The time constraint is very important," says Nadine Debois, president of the French Society for Sport Psychology.

"It is impossible to create training conditions that perfectly resemble the real competition," adds Philippe Le Van, physician at the French National Olympic Sports Committee (CNOSF). Having worked with top French athletes for 20 years, Le Van says he knows "a lot of very talented people who have not become champions."

This mechanism is of great interest to all brain specialists. "Athletes are not a species apart, they can teach us a lot," says Jean-François Toussaint, director of the French Institute for Sport Biomedical and Epidemiological Research Institute. "It enables us to study how the brain works in extreme situations," adds Jacques Touchon, president of the science council for the Federation into Brain Research.

Attaining a "state of grace"

A particularly intriguing aspect of this phenomenon is the ability of some sports competitors to attain a level of extreme, almost superhuman, lucidity. In 1988, for example, during a practice session at the Grand Prix of Monaco, the Brazilian driver Ayrton Senna gained the pole position by 1.5 seconds from Alain Prost, and by more than two seconds from the rest of his competitors. Questioned about his exceptional performance, Senna evoked a "state of grace": "I had reached the highest level of my ability to concentrate, and of my will to win. It is a feeling that I never found afterwards."

Flute, the archery champion, has also experienced these almost magical moments when he felt that he was "physically guiding the arrow toward the target." He says that "stress and pleasure fuel performance and render the six hours of daily training more bearable." The 39-year-old Brittany-born archer has resumed training and is now preparing himself for the 2012 London Games.

Another aspect which is of great interest to researchers, is the ability to prepare for a challenge through anticipation. "Some skiers visualize their every move on the trail with their eyes closed, just before the race," says André Nieoullon. The way in which sport modifies the formation of cortical maps is another enigma that has long fascinated researchers. "Physical activity favors neurogenesis in the learning part of the brain," says Touchon.

When stimulated, the brain requires about 80 milliseconds to trigger the first signal. Within the following 150 milliseconds, a series of waves sweeps the cortex from back to front. This first wave of information is unconscious. A period of 250 to 300 milliseconds is needed for a clear representation to be produced. "The brain is a slow and rather inhibitory machine," explains Nieoullon. Despite this relative slowness, Formula One drivers manage to reach 250 kilometers-per-hour in certain parts of the Monaco circuit, or 7 meters per every 100 milliseconds.

Growth hormones out, brain drugs in

The research into brain biochemistry has long attracted all kinds of pseudo-doctors who gravitate towards the world of sports. "Some of the molecules developed to treat mental disorders will undoubtedly be used to enhance performance in sports," says Jean-Francois Toussaint. This time, it's not about growth hormones or anabolic products that help to build up the muscle, but finding an edge in the way the mind reacts. Neurochemistry's moment in the sports world has arrived.

The best known example of this kind of psychological doping is Modafinil. Originally created to treat sleep disorders, this "boosting" molecule has a number of fans in the sports world. Solo sailors use it regularly to fight fatigue. Sprinters also use it, but for different reasons: the stimulant drug allows users to isolate themselves from their environment and thus "erase the pressure." The American athlete Kelli White, a specialist in the 100 and 200 meters, admitted that she had become addicted to Modafinil. "It drops reaction time from 160 milliseconds to 130 milliseconds," says Jean-Francois Toussaint. That would be more than enough to win a gold medal.

Read the original article in French

photo - (Stu Seeger)

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Why This Sudan Coup Is Different

The military has seized control in one of Africa's largest countries, which until recently had made significant progress towards transitioning to democracy after years of strongman rule. But the people, and international community, may not be willing to turn back.

Smoke rises Monday over the Sudanese capital of Khartoum

Xinhua via ZUMA
David E. Kiwuwa

This week the head of Sudan's Sovereign Council, General Abdel Fattah El Burhan, declared the dissolution of the transitional council, which has been in place since the overthrow of former president Omar el-Bashir in 2019. He also disbanded all the structures that had been set up as part of the transitional roadmap, and decreed a state of emergency.

In essence, he staged a palace coup against the transitional authority he chaired.

The general's actions, which included the arrest of Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok, are a culmination of a long period of tension between the civilian and military wings of the council.

A popular uprising may be inevitable

The tensions were punctuated by an alleged attempted coup only weeks earlier. The days leading to the palace coup were marked by street protests for and against the military. Does this mark the end of the transition as envisaged by the protest movement?

Their ability to confront counter revolutionary forces cannot be underestimated.

The popular uprising against Bashir's government was led by the Sudan Professional Association. It ushered in the political transitional union of civilians and the military establishment. The interim arrangement was to lead to a return to civilian rule.

But this cohabitation was tenuous from the start, given the oversized role of the military in the transition. Moreover, the military appeared to be reluctant to see the civilian leadership as an equal partner in shepherding through the transition.

Nevertheless, until recently there had been progress towards creating the institutional architecture for the transition. Despite the challenges and notable tension between the signatories to the accord, it was never evident that the dysfunction was so great as to herald the collapse of the transitional authority.

For now, the transition might be disrupted and in fact temporarily upended. But the lesson from Sudan is never to count the masses out of the equation. Their ability to mobilize and confront counter revolutionary forces cannot be underestimated.

Power sharing

The transitional pact itself had been anchored by eight arduously negotiated protocols. These included regional autonomy, integration of the national army, revenue sharing and repatriation of internal refugees. There was also an agreement to share out positions in national political institutions, such as the legislative and executive branch.

Progress towards these goals was at different stages of implementation. More substantive progress was expected to follow after the end of the transition. This was due in 2022 when the chair of the sovereignty council handed over to a civilian leader. This military intervention is clearly self-serving and an opportunistic power grab.

A promised to civilian rule in July 2023 through national elections.

In November, the rotational chairmanship of the transitional council was to be passed from the military to the civilian wing of the council. That meant the military would cede strong leverage to the civilians. Instead, with the coup afoot, Burhan has announced both a dissolution of the council as well as the dismissal of provincial governors. He has unilaterally promised return to civilian rule in July 2023 through national elections.

Prior to this, the military had been systematically challenging the pre-eminence of the civilian authority. It undermined them and publicly berated them for governmental failures and weaknesses. For the last few months there has been a deliberate attempt to sharply criticize the civilian council as riddled with divisions, incompetent and undermining state stability.

File photo shows Sudan's Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok in August 2020

Mohamed Khidir/Xinhua via ZUMA

Generals in suits

Since the revolution against Bashir's government, the military have fancied themselves as generals in suits. They have continued to wield enough power to almost run a parallel government in tension with the prime minister. This was evident when the military continued to have the say on security and foreign affairs.

For their part, civilian officials concentrated on rejuvenating the economy and mobilizing international support for the transitional council.

This didn't stop the military from accusing the civilian leadership of failing to resuscitate the country's ailing economy. True, the economy has continued to struggle from high inflation, low industrial output and dwindling foreign direct investment. As in all economies, conditions have been exacerbated by the effects of COVID-19.

Sudan's weakened economy is, however, not sufficient reason for the military intervention. Clearly this is merely an excuse.

Demands of the revolution

The success or failure of this coup will rest on a number of factors.

First is the ability of the military to use force. This includes potential violent confrontation with the counter-coup forces. This will dictate the capacity of the military to change the terms of the transition.

Second is whether the military can harness popular public support in the same way that the Guinean or Egyptian militaries did. This appears to be a tall order, given that popular support appears to be far less forthcoming.

The international community's appetite for military coups is wearing thin.

Third, the ability of the Sudanese masses to mobilize against military authorities cannot be overlooked. Massive nationwide street protests and defiance campaigns underpinned by underground organizational capabilities brought down governments in 1964, 1985 and 2019. They could once again present a stern test to the military.

Finally, the international community's appetite for military coups is wearing thin. The ability of the military to overcome pressure from regional and international actors to return to the status quo could be decisive, given the international support needed to prop up the crippled economy.

The Sudanese population may have been growing frustrated with its civilian authority's ability to deliver on the demands of the revolution. But it is also true that another coup to reinstate military rule is not something the protesters believe would address the challenges they were facing.

Sudan has needed and will require compromise and principled political goodwill to realise a difficult transition. This will entail setbacks but undoubtedly military intervention in whatever guise is monumentally counterproductive to the aspirations of the protest movement.


David E. Kiwuwa is Associate Professor of International Studies at University of Nottingham

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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