My Speed Skater Is Faster Than Yours

Three questions with psychology professor Sam Sommers about competition, fans, and the Olympics
American speed skater competing at 2018 winter Olympics
For athletes, “being in front of a crowd, or knowing that television audiences are watching, can actually make their performances better,” said Sam Sommers. Here, Heather Bergsma competes in the 1,500 meters speed skating race. Photo:AP/Vadim Ghirda
February 13, 2018

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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?

Sam Sommers. Photo: Alonso NicholsIf 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.

Olympic athletes train to make the task they have to engage in become second nature—muscle memory—so that in the heat of the competition, they really don’t have to think about what they are doing. So for them, being in front of a crowd, or knowing that television audiences are watching, can actually make their performances better.

What is it about the Olympics—with athletes and teams we don’t know and sports we don’t usually follow—that hooks us as viewers?

We tune in to watch the big-name sports all the time, but a lot of what happens at the Olympics are these sports that we don’t know as much about, or these people who are competitors who we don’t see on a day-to-day basis. They almost seem more like everyday individuals, and whether we’re talking everyone’s sporadically favorite winter Olympic sport—curling—or the luge or ski jumping, we almost feel like, boy, anyone could do this. But of course we couldn’t.

Still, there is something about watching people who look like ordinary individuals competing at this level that is quite intriguing. We can maybe see ourselves somewhat in the Olympic competitors in a way that we don’t when we turn on the Super Bowl, which helps draw us in. And of course the excellence on display in other events like figure skating, downhill skiing, and the like is captivating in its own right.

The Olympics is supposed to be about using sports to bring peace and understanding, but we all swell with pride when our country’s athletes win—and our enemies’ teams lose. What does it say about our, well, tribalism?

The world of sports is fascinating. It reflects and contributes to some of the basic processes that define who we are as humans. When watching a sporting event, we sometimes experience even greater pleasure watching an archrival lose than we do from seeing the team we’re rooting for win. There are even brain-imaging studies that support that conclusion. We are tribal; we quickly fall into us vs. them mindsets.

We enjoy rooting for and rooting against. But there is a lot about the Olympics that does bring people together—think about the parade of nations and the opening ceremonies, and how athletes from two countries that have historically not gotten along sometimes try to bridge that gap.

On the other hand, sports can also drive us apart. Competition is often a fuel for animus and prejudice, and you get some of that going on in the Olympics. In the book that John and I wrote, we talked about the World Cup, and about research that indicates that countries being assigned to the same group in the World Cup predicts increased international aggression between those countries in the years to follow. Still, there is a lot about the Olympics and its ethos as amateur competition that maybe can get around some of that.

Taylor McNeil can be reached at taylor.mcneil@tufts.edu.

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