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Mind, body and soul - what makes a champion?

By Allan Snyder - posted Tuesday, 15 August 2000

Edwin Flack was a giant! A truly great Australian. He won two gold medals in the first of the modern Olympics in 1896. He also nearly won the marathon, but collapsed with physical exhaustion in sight of the finish line. He gave his entire being to win.

But, when you think about it, Edwin Flack was a man possessed! Many might think him even mad! How else can you explain why a person, for a mere abstraction mind you, would actually drive themselves to physical collapse? How else can you explain the single-minded dedication of an Olympic champion?

This is not just my assessment. Even Brooks Johnson, the great Olympic coach at Stanford University, said:


There is no way you can do the things necessary to be [an Olympic champion] and not be clinically neurotic and, in some instances, clinically psychotic ... [champions] are very abnormal people.

Olympic athletes? Abnormal people?

But, I ask you, up front, is there really any difference between the so-called neurosis of the athlete from that of the artist, the scientist or for that matter any individual who commits themselves to realise a dream? In all cases, there is a sacrifice of the pleasures in life as normally appreciated.

What elusive spirit sustains us through the agonising process necessary to win, necessary to realise a dream? Answer this question and we will have unlocked one of the mysteries of the mind, we will have discovered the element in common with all great achievers. Answer this question and we will have captured the crucial ingredient that lets the human spirit soar.

Many intellectuals have been dismissive of the physical. They conceptualise body and brain as separate in both structure and function. They see the physical as an unnecessary distraction to the mental.

But compelling research strongly disputes this claim. In particular, the American neurologist Damasio found that decision-making is impaired in patients who lack awareness of their body. Damasio concluded that the mind both learns through the body and is profoundly influenced by the body.


In other words, we interact with the environment as an ensemble: the interaction is neither of the body alone nor of the brain alone. Our very reality is formed through our interactions with this world. Our concepts and our repertoire of mental schema are powerfully influenced by the physical.

So, the ancient Greeks actually had it right. Plato especially advocated physical exercise for developing the spiritual side of life.

And the reverse is true – our spiritual side – our mind – is critical for exquisite physical performance. Our mindset strongly influences our performance. But, this fact is often difficult to grasp.

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This paper was originally presented as the inaugural Edwin Flack lecture at the Great Hall of Sydney University. It was also published in the International Olympic Committee's Olympic Review, XXVI-27 June-July p 71-74 (1999).

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About the Author

Professor Allan Snyder is Director of the Centre for the Mind at the Australian National University where he holds the Peter Karmel Chair of Science and the Mind. He is also Professor of Optical Physics and Vision Research and Head of the Optical Sciences Centre.

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