Extreme Fear

Getting a grip on the brain's alarm system

The Psychological Hazards of Speed Skating

The Psychological Hazards of Speed Skating

Apolo Anton Ohno's win in the 1000-meter short-track speed skating race on Saturday was all the more dramatic for the fact that he very nearly fell and lost it completely. "It feels amazing, especially in a sport as volatile as short track speed skating," he said afterward.

Indeed, speed-skating is a sport notoriously vulnerable to catastrophe. The sudden and dramatic loss of ability, known as choking, haunts every sport. Golfers dread "the yips," the abrupt inability to sink even the easiest putt. Archers are haunted by "target panic." But no one is as vulnerable as speed skaters. With a handful of events left to go, there's still plenty of opportunities for skaters to suffer wrenching denouements.

What's unusual about speed skating is that it requires both explosive gross-motor power and precise fine-motor skill. In the 500-meter race, a skater must deploy explosive force in no more than 70 or 80 strokes of his skates before crossing the finish line. A slight error in the placement of the steel blade can be disastrous.

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This reliance on both precision and brute force means that the stress of competition can have an unusual effect on competitors. When emotional arousal is high, gross motor performance tends to increase: We can run very fast when a lion is chasing us. In contrast, fine motor skills tend to fall apart under pressure, as is known to anyone who's ever fumbled their keys while racing to open the front door.

The Olympics, of course, are all about pressure. Millions of eyes are on each competitor. The anxiety of being watched triggers an ancient mammalian fear pathway related to the preservation of social status. One result is intense self-consciousness. Instead of being directed towards our external goal - winning - our focus is directed inward. We find ourselves watching our own actions in a way we normally don't. And this conscious attention undermines our well-learned fine motor skills. What once was performed expertly and effortlessly becomes clumsy and fraught, triggering still more anxiety in a vicious circle. For chokers, collapse is total.

One of the most horrifying aspects of choking is that once this heinous manifestation of self-consciousness has struck, it can strike again at will. As noted British golf writer Henry Longhurst said of the yips, "Once you've had ‘em, you've got ‘em." Every time you go back to the situation where came to grief before, the dark possibility looms afresh, setting the stage for a self-fulfilling prophecy.

No athlete more famously embodies the perverse tortures of choking better than speed skater Dan Jansen. The Wisconsin native arrived at the 1988 Winter Olympics at Calgary, Alberta, a heavy favorite, having won the World Sprint Championships just the week before. But on the day of his first race he heard the news that his sister had just died. Devastated, he folded under pressure, tumbling on the first turn. Now the jinx was upon him. He fell again at his next race four days later.

As Jansen's career progressed, he continued to dominate speed skating in every venue - except the Olympics, where he seemed obstinately cursed. At the 1992 games he finished no higher than fourth. And at the 1994 Winter Olympics he muffed again, slipping during the first two of his two finals.
His last chance to win Olympic gold before retiring would be in the 1000 meter event. But by now, Jansen had given up on himself. He called a reporter at his local newspaper and asked him to pass along a message to his fans: "Sorry, Milwaukee."

The final race took place on Friday, February 18. Jansen came strong out of the gate, covering the first 200 meters in a mere 16.71 seconds. By the 600 meter mark he was on a world-record pace.

But the legacy of his Olympic demons was still hanging over him. On the second-to-last turn Jansen lost his rhythm. His foot slipped, his arm swung down in an attempt at a save. His fingers barely grazed the ice as he regained his balance. It had cost him - a hundredth of a second or two perhaps - but he was still in the race. He had survived. Jansen poured it on through the final 200 meters, and as he crossed the line, his time flashed on the big electronic screen: 1:12.43. He had bested the world record by 11 one-hundredths of a second and earned himself a gold medal.

After his victory, Jansen became a hero on a scale that he never would have been had he simply won his gold medals as expected. Ronald Reagan, George HW Bush and Bill Clinton sent personal congratulations. Sports Illustrated put him on its cover. And his fame continues today: When Stephen Colbert announced his sponsorship of the U.S. speed skating team last November, it was Jansen who was sitting in the guest's chair. By turning in a world-beating performance in the 1000 meters, Jansen had done something much more difficult than besting his rivals. He'd triumphed over his own psychology.

Jeff Wise is a New York-based science writer and author of Extreme Fear: The Science of Your Mind in Danger.

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