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 Sciences Centre.

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 to win.

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, said:

"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.


Photo of Edwin FlackEdwin 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 throughout time.

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 the body.


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.

Photo of Keiran Perkins
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 raw talent!

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 1987].

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 mindset!

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 their mindset.

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 interactions.

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 throughout time.

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?


Photo of Aboriginals with BoomerangsAborigines with boomerangs, late 1800s.
The Boomerang 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 many others.

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 educationalist,

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 and Mandy Thomas of the University of Western Sydney.

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