|HOLD THAT THOUGHT
Bioengineeering and genetics may redefine the Olympian’s body, but physical conditioning is just part of the game. Every world-class athlete, from Andre Agassi to Marion Jones, abides in what’s often called a “winner’s mindset.” Words can’t define this psyched-up state—but brainwaves possibly can.
The human brain generates a broad range of electrical signals, depending on its activity. Washing dishes, for example, generates a lower wavelength than leaping off a 90-meter Olympic ski jump. When Venus Williams serves an ace, her brain is running at a specific—and very desirable—frequency. If she remains in that state, her game stays strong. “Of all the people competing in an Olympic event,” confirms Tim Conrad, “30 or 40 are physically prepared to win. The ones who stay together mentally will win medals.”
Years of training can prepare your muscles and reflexes for the high jump, but unless you’re in “the zone”—where mental focus and alertness are flowing in perfect balance—you’re going to eat the bar. To help athletes control this state, technicians in Colorado Springs are using Peak Achievement Trainers (PATs). These laboratory biofeedback devices, attached to the scalp with electrodes, allow athletes to monitor—and ostensibly regulate—their levels of mental arousal. At present, the devices are more hype than help. “If this were a silver bullet,” notes Conrad, “the companies making them would be extremely wealthy.”
Today, the unwieldy size of brainwave sensors and the inability of computer processors to track an athlete’s motion in real time prevent such biofeedback trainers from being practical. But experts like Conrad foresee the day when athletes will rely on next-generation “Personal Zone Monitors.” No larger than a deck of cards, such PZMs—worn like a heart monitor—could precisely measure a gymnast’s mindset through an entire routine. The unit would then help maintain this level by providing subtle signals to hold the mind on track.
Inevitably, virtual reality trainers—something like Star Trek’s “holodeck”—will also play a role in mental conditioning. The first generation of such trainers, albeit relatively primitive, are already in use. Mont Hubbard of UC Davis has built an Olympic bobsled simulator, programmed with the world’s major runs. And the USOC techs have developed a table-tennis robot capable of duplicating any kind of spin or trajectory. “It’ll beat the stuffing out of you,” Conrad promises.
Sure, but only until we’ve built a better human.
Jeff Greenwald is the author of The Size of the World and Future Perfect: How Star Trek Conquered Planet Earth.