Multi Sport

Are Extreme Athletes Born Braver Than The Rest Of Us? We Found Out…

We went up against elite athletes to see if they're wired differently and found out how we measured up

“They’re wired up differently to us”

It’s a phrase that’s said regularly of extreme athletes, especially those that have to take life threatening risks as a matter of course.

While most of us would never conceive of jumping off a mountain, speeding on a motorbike or paddling into a giant set of waves, the elite group of action sports stars not only head into those scenarios – they conquer them.

But how different are an elite athletes thought processes compared to the average person? Dunlop and University College London decided to do a test to find out and invited us along to join in.


DAVE KNEEN/PACEMAKER PRESS, BELFAST: 31/05/2016: John McGuinness (Honda – Honda Racing) at Rhencullen during qualifying for the Monster Energy Isle of Man TT.

So how do you test something like this? With a big scientific laboratory and a scientist, of course.

Professor Vincent Walsh of UCL and his team devised a test using images and memory stresses, in which a group of extreme athletes could go up against a group of ‘normal’ journalists. It would test how their response time and memory measured up, along with their reactions to different mental stresses and their level of performance.

This test consists of a series of pictures which can’t be found on the internet, ranging from everyday objects and scenes, to extremely rare images, which have been proven to have different effects on the brain and can be used to artificially invoke feelings of stress. The idea is to see how the average joe handles them in comparison to a world class athlete.

“These elite athletes perform tasks that many of us could never comprehend but what is fascinating is their mind-set when tackling such challenges” says Professor Walsh.

“When some decisions can be the difference between success and failure, it is perhaps unsurprising that the study showed that athletes were consistently several seconds faster when performing their tasks. A few seconds or a few percent may not sound much but this is a long time in sport and is the difference between winning and losing.”

On the day of the test, we sit in the waiting room at the laboratory, waiting to be called in for our go at the test. You can feel people’s nerves across the room.

In the room of six journalists and six athletes, the athletes approach to the situation differed. Le Mans racing driver Oliver Webb seemed nervous about the type of images we were going to be shown, more than the results. John McGuiness seemed to be raring to go, his competitive streak showing clearly. Big wave surfer Andrew Cotton on the other hand seemed to be the one person relaxed and taking it in his stride.

The biggest thing in the waiting room that was obvious however, was the difference between the athletes and the journalists. While the athletes seemed to be preparing themselves, the journalists sat and made small talk about their nerves and wondered about how brutal the test could be. The contrast made for an interesting clue as to the results that were to come.

After a few hours of nervous waiting, it was time for us and our athletic counterpart, downhill skateboarder Pete Connolly, to go in and do the test.

Sitting opposite each other, in front of our own screens, we’re told that the test will last 40 minutes and we can start whenever we’re ready. Pete starts first.

The images shown are top secret and for that reason can’t be shared, ranging from everyday objects to ones of a more extreme nature used to stimulate a positive and negative response in us. What we can say however, is that at times they were difficult to deal with.

Looking up at Pete throughout the test, it was interesting to see the contrast of his reactions with our own. While anyone would flinch and look away often, his concentration never faltered. Starting only a minute before us, he finished and left ten minutes early. Even without the results, it was already clear to see that there was a big difference between journalist and athlete.

The Results

The results from the Dunlop experiment tell us much more than expected about the brains of extreme athletes. While the journalists had a good level of memory, the athletes ability to keep control was through the roof.

Not only were the athlete’s brains 10 per cent quicker than the non athletes they actually improved by 20 per cent when faced with  challenging images. In short, these athletes can make themselves perform better in life threatening moments when the rest of us would falter. It’s an amazing skill to have and a fascinating one for them all to share.

“In some cases, the non-athletes’ performance fell apart in terms of speed of memory when put in difficult and intense situations. Conversely, the athlete’s responses often improved” says Professor Walsh.

“A lot of this makes sense, in particular in the case of rock-climbing or motor racing, where the athletes are conditioned to negate dangerous situations and need to make split second decisions.”

So are athletes wired differently to us? Most definitely. What’s more interesting however is how their individual results matched up with the challenges in their sports.

John McGuinness was the fastest in reaction to negative stimuli, which makes sense for a motocross driver when quick reactions in moments of intense danger is a must.

Louis Parkinson had the highest accuracy under pressure, for a rock climber who needs to work out routes in extended periods of danger this fits perfectly.

Whether it be through nature or nurture however, what is certain is that athletes have a different response to performance when the stakes are high. Whether they’re a rock climber, surfer, or motocross driver, what links them is that they all to stay in control of their natural fears and use them to make themselves perform better.

It’s not just their physical attributes that make them extraordinary, it’s their mindset also and Professor Walsh and Dunlop have proven that.

You can challenge your own mental performance through one of the cognitive tests developed by Dunlop and UCL here 

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