Jordan Gaines Lewis, Ph.D.

Brain Babble

#PhelpsFace and the Neuroscience of Getting “in the Zone”

What explains the swimmer's scary face before Monday's 200m butterfly?

Posted Aug 11, 2016

Social media exploded earlier this week with a bevy of tweets and memes featuring a rather unimpressed Olympian – and this time, it wasn’t McKayla Maroney.

On Monday night, cameras captured a hooded Michael Phelps appearing to brood and snarl in the direction of South African swimmer Chad le Clos, who was shadowboxing in preparation for the 200-meter butterfly semifinal.

Thus, #PhelpsFace was born.

Despite the intense focus we’ve seen since the Sydney games in 2000, Phelps’ ADHD presented him with a struggle early on. As his mother Debbie described in a 2008 article for The New York Times, “In kindergarten I was told by his teacher, ‘Michael can’t sit still, Michael can’t be quiet, Michael can’t focus.’” Attending regular swim practices – sometimes more than four hours’ worth each day – gave him an outlet for his boundless energy and a lesson in self-discipline.

In fact, many of Phelps’ pre-swim rituals align with what scientists have recently been learning about how we focus to get our heads in the game.

Phelps listens to music in the minutes leading up to a race.

He may look a little silly marching out to the starting block in his Beats headphones. But as he told the Guardian in 2005, “I have walked out to race with my headphones on throughout my whole career and listen to music until the last possible moment.” Though he hasn’t revealed his 2016 playlist yet, The New York Times reported a mix of “Eminem, Young Jeezy and a more recent addition, Eric Church.” He’s also famously into Dr. Dre, Notorious BIG, and Lil Wayne.

While one may surmise that the heavy, repetitive beats in rap and hip-hop music may focus and center his mind before a race, the truth is probably a lot simpler: he simply likes the music.

In a 2014 study, 21 young adults were placed in an MRI scanner and played various genres of music, from classical (Beethoven’s 5th) to country (“Water” by Brad Paisley), rock (KISS), and everything in between.

While listening to their preferred musical genre, researchers found that there was significantly greater functional brain connectivity in the default mode network, a system of brain regions associated with introspection, memory reprocessing, and even daydreaming. In other words, listening to music you like helps you tune out the outside world. So while you may find yourself lost in thought while listening to a Jack Johnson tune, #PhelpsFace may be a result of Lil Wayne’s “I’m Me.”

Phelps visualizes all possible race scenarios.

In this 2012 video, Phelps and his coach Bob Bowman discuss how visualizing all sorts of scenarios, both good and bad, prepares Phelps mentally for races – from winning to losing, from his suit ripping to his goggles filling with water.

As Bowman describes, “He has all of this in his database, so when he swims the race, he’s already programmed his nervous system to do one of those.” When Phelps’ goggles filled with water during the 200-meter butterfly final in Beijing, Phelps didn’t panic; he knew to simply count his strokes.

In an interesting 2004 study, Cleveland Clinic researchers examined the influence of visualization on muscular strength training. For 12 weeks, volunteers either visualized abduction of the little finger (through what the researchers called “mental contractions”), or they physically trained their little finger to perform these abductions.

After 12 weeks, physical training increased finger strength by 53%. But, surprisingly, the group that simply performed mental contractions actually increased their physical strength by 35% when tested. (The control group of volunteers, which trained neither physically nor mentally during the 12-week period, had no significant changes in finger strength.) Interestingly, when these participants were hooked up to an EEG device, the mentally trained group showed increases in certain brain signals comparable to the group who trained physically. In other words, simple mental training appears to enhance the ability of the brain to generate output to the muscles in a similar way that physical training can.

Phelps slaps his back 3 times on the block before the starting buzzer.

Before every single race, after positioning himself on the starting block, Phelps leans forward, swings his massive arms together, and slaps the opposite side of his back exactly three times. (I swear, NBC must have him hooked to a mic each time they film this.)

Cliff (Flickr)
Source: Cliff (Flickr)

Of course, the backslaps themselves don’t make him a champion – surely those last-minute movements don’t contribute much to his physical preparation – but there may be something more to his repetitive routine.

For Phelps, slapping his back three times has become a ritual – he’s conditioned to associate it with racing (and winning).

Repetition, superstitions, and habits are commonplace in sports, like Tiger Woods wearing red on Sundays or Michael Jordan always wearing his UNC shorts under his NBA shorts. In a 2010 study, German researchers found that “activating a superstition” – such as crossing one’s fingers or carrying a lucky charm – improved performance in sports, motor dexterity, and memory. This advantage was brought about by increased self-efficacy, or the participants’ belief in their capacity to perform well.

Think for a second about some of your daily habits. Which shoe do you put on first? Which foot do you start climbing stairs on? Which side of your mouth do you start brushing first? It feels weird when you change it up, right? Keeping the same simple, automatic routines (like back-slapping) make life (or, you know, Olympic swimming) just a little more efficient.

So what was Michael Phelps thinking on Monday night when NBC caught that glorious headshot? Was he lost in thought listening to some sick beats? Visualizing what he’d do if his swim cap ripped? Legitimately annoyed by le Clos’ air-punching? Either way, #PhelpsFace won the gold medal of 2016 Olympic Memes this time around.