What a Mayo Clinic doctor sees when watching the Olympics


Many of us who have watched Olympic sporting achievements on television have probably wondered, “How can we 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 is also a frequently cited expert in human performance and endurance. We spoke to her about athletes and their vulnerabilities, how to win while relaxing, and how the Olympics are a celebration of human diversity.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Q: Do you watch the Olympics?

A: Oh, my God, I still am. I have my own sporting past. In addition, I have this long interest in human performance.

Q: What did you find most convincing?

A: Just the overall age range of some athletes. We have relatively old people who participate in sports, and then we have very young people who participate in swimming, gymnastics, and so on. So I think we see the lineup of excellence playing out where that age range was much narrower in a lot of sports.

Q: Was there an event that stood out for you?

A: I think the only story that has huge implications for society as a whole is the women’s road cycling race, where the Austrian doctoral student. (Anna Kiesenhofer, who has a doctorate in mathematics), a sort of lone rider, and a few other people, made a breakaway. The peloton lost sight of it because there is no radio like in professional races. And she was able to sort of sneak in for the gold. I thought that was a real metaphor for how skills can erode if you get too reliant on technology.

Q: We have known for a long time that the mental game is huge. How did you see that play out in these Olympics?

A: Obviously the focus is on Simone Biles, who did well to pull out because you don’t want to be in the middle of the air turning if you don’t know where you are. We certainly see people more willing to discuss their vulnerabilities. And it’s been great to hear Michael Phelps (Olympic swimming champion) talk about it in some of the interviews or comments he’s made on TV.

Q: Can you identify any common traits among the winners?

A: There is an old concept that was summed up by a trainer named Bud Winter. He has coached a large number of world record holders on the track. He also trained fighter pilots during World War II. And he noticed that the best canine fighters were the ones who were intensely focused and relaxed at the same time. He wrote this amazing book called “Relax and Win”.

I think you see it in these kinds of people who are really at the top of their game. Some have called it the zone. Some people call it a lot of things. But it’s just intense focus, intense focus, and intense relaxation at the same time. It’s really quite remarkable when you see it.

I am an anesthesiologist when I do clinical work, and I sometimes see it in our top surgeons. When you see someone who has some sort of transcendent performance, you see the approach relax and win over and over again.

Q: We have seen some of the stars, the faves, not getting the gold. Nothing surprising for you?

A: Well, I think you always have to ask yourself in a year like this, how the pandemic played out because some people were able to adapt their training more easily than others.

And then there are the youngest like the young Alaskan (17 years old gold medalist Lydia Jacoby), this teenager in the 100 meters breaststroke, who might not have qualified last year. So I think there is a bit of that.

You will always have people with breakthrough performances, and always people who are not doing as well as expected. But adding an extra year and the pandemic on top of that, it’s harder to predict.

Q: How do you view these games differently from your average viewer?

A: I am always looking for common lessons at the limit of human performance. How they prepare for the heat. How they prepare psychologically. How it all comes together for truly unique, elite and unique performances. And see what are the common points that have both a physiological explanation, but also a psychological or sociological explanation.

For example, the United States is doing very well on the number of medals. It’s hard to believe how much we owe Title IX. More than many countries, this really systematizes the possibility for girls and women to participate in sports from childhood in high school and university, and then continue into adulthood. When Richard Nixon signed Title IX legislation, he was certainly not trying to win Olympic medals. But this is the unintended consequence of Title IX. I think it was great.

Q: What do you think the games celebrate?

A: The Olympics are great because you see people competing, from 4’8 ” gymnasts to these really tall 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 to what human diversity can do when it enables self-expression at the highest levels.

Richard Chin • 612-673-1775


About Robert L. Thomas

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