Many of us who have been watching Olympic athletic feats on television have probably wondered, "How can they do that?"
Michael Joyner has a better idea than most.
The Mayo Clinic doctor and former college runner studies the physiology of elite athletes in his lab. He's also a frequently cited expert in human performance and endurance. We talked to him about athletes and their vulnerabilities, how to win by relaxing and how the Olympics are a celebration of human diversity.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: Are you watching the Olympics?
A: Oh, God am I ever. I have my own athletic background. Plus I've got this long interest in human performance.
Q: What have you found most compelling?
A: Just the overall age range of some of the athletes. We've got some relatively senior people participating in sports, and then we have some really young people in the swimming, gymnastics, and so forth. So I think we're seeing the range of excellence play out where that age range used to be much tighter in many sports.
Q: Is there an event that stands out for you?
A: The one story I think, which has huge implications for society as a whole was the women's road cycling race, where the Austrian Ph.D. (Anna Kiesenhofer, who has a doctorate in mathematics), a sort of unattached rider, and a couple other people, did a breakaway. The peloton lost track of her because there are no radios like there are in professional races. And she was able to kind of sneak in for the gold. I thought that that was a real metaphor for how skills can erode if you become overly reliant on technology.
Q: We've known a long time that the mental game is huge. How have you seen that playing out in this Olympics?
A: Obviously, the focus on Simone Biles, who did the right thing by withdrawing because you don't want to be in the middle of the air twisting around if you don't know where you are. We're certainly seeing people more willing to discuss their vulnerabilities. And it's been great to hear (Olympic champion swimmer) Michael Phelps talk about that in some of the interviews or comments he's made on TV.
Q: Can you identify any common traits among the winners?
A: There's an old concept that was encapsulated by a coach named Bud Winter. He coached a huge number of world record holders in track. He also trained fighter pilots in World War II. And he noticed that the best dog fighters were the people who were intensely focused and relaxed at the same time. He wrote this incredible book called "Relax and Win."
I think you see it in these sorts of folks really at the peak of their game. Some people have called it the zone. Some people call it a lot of things. But it's just intense focus, intense concentration and intense relaxation at the same time. It's really quite remarkable when you see it.
I'm an anesthesiologist when I do clinical work, and I see it sometimes in our very best surgeons. When you see somebody who has kind of a transcendent performance, you see the relax and win approach over and over and over again.
Q: We've seen some of the stars, the favorites, not getting gold. Anything surprising to you?
A: Well, I think you have to always ask yourself in a year like this, how the pandemic played into it because some people were able to adapt their training more easily than others.
And then you have some of the younger people like the young woman from Alaska (17-year-old gold medal winner Lydia Jacoby), this teenager in the 100-meter breast stroke, who maybe wouldn't have qualified last year. So I think there's some of that going on.
You're always gonna have people with breakthrough performances, and always people that don't do as well as anticipated. But the addition of an extra year and the pandemic on top of it, it's harder to predict.
Q: How are you watching these games differently than your average viewer?
A: I'm always looking for common lessons at the edge of human performance. How they're preparing for the heat. How they're preparing psychologically. How it all comes together for the really unique, elite, once-in-a-lifetime performances. And seeing what commonalities are there that have both a physiological explanation, but also a psychological or sociological explanation.
For example, the U.S. is doing very well on the medal count. It's hard to believe how much we owe to Title IX. More than many countries, that really systematizes the ability for girls and women to participate as kids in high school and college sports, and then continue into adulthood. When Richard Nixon signed the Title IX legislation, he was certainly not trying to win Olympic medals. But that's the unanticipated consequence of Title IX. I think that's been terrific.
Q: To you, what do the games celebrate?
A: The Olympics are great, because you see people competing from 4-foot-8-inch gymnasts to these very big men in the track and field throwing events. You see people from all over the world. So it's a real tribute to this whole concept of human diversity, and what human diversity can do when it's permitted self expression at the highest levels.
Richard Chin • 612-673-1775