My Speed Skater Is Faster Than Yours

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As skiers, snowboarders, and figure skaters start what for most is the biggest competition of their lives at the Winter Olympics in South Korea, the world’s eyes are on them. Does that pressure help performances—or hinder them? And are the Olympics, vaunted as the “peace games,” really bringing people of many countries together, or helping divide them even more?To find out, we talked with Sam Sommers, a professor of psychology in the School of Arts and Sciences who is co-author of This Is Your Brain on Sports (along with John Wertheim, executive editor of Sports Illustrated). He is quick to aver that he is not a sports psychologist, but rather a social scientist who studies the psychology of everyday life, with a particular interest in the world of sports. “The Olympics, and sports more generally, bring out the best—and the worst—in us,” Sommers said.
Tufts Now: How do Olympic athletes cope with the pressure of so many people watching them perform?
Sam Sommers: In my social psychology course we talk about social facilitation. It’s a theory that proposes that when we are in the presence of others who can evaluate our performance, whether we do better or worse depends on whether the task is easy to do or hard. Is it a well-learned thing that we’ve practiced, or something new that’s going to be more challenging to us?
If I asked you to stand up in front of 200 people and recite the alphabet, you’d be able to do it quite well, and the fact that everyone was looking at you might make you focus more and do it even more clearly than otherwise. But if I asked you to speak in a language you barely knew, then speaking would be even harder than normal in the presence of other people.
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