The Supplement: The Winter Games

By Patricia Fuller, PhD | Director of Wellness Engineering

Are you glued to your television watching the PyeongChang Winter Games? I am spellbound. The athletes are so strong, fearless and graceful. Their record breaking performances appear effortless. And when there are injuries, they are horrifying and tragic–all of those years of dedication and discipline dashed in seconds. While we ordinary individuals may not experience the same peaks and valleys as the Olympic athletes, we are predisposed to the same effects of stress and challenge on our performance, health and happiness.

When the Olympians have trained optimally, they find themselves atop the winners’ podium sporting serious hardware and big smiles. These peak performances result from rigorous physical challenge coupled with meticulous recovery. Watch the athletes after an event. They immediately work on recuperating. They ritualistically hydrate and stretch. The recovery is every bit as intentional as the performance. While we have witnessed several very severe injuries, according to Johns Hopkins’ Chief of Sports Medicine, the most common athletic injuries are from overuse. Overuse injuries result in swelling, soreness and pain. Athletes accept these as an occupational hazard and they guard against them conscientiously. Massage, compression and ice baths are typically used to treat them. Remember a polka dotted Michael Phelps from the last Summer Games? He was using cupping, an ancient Chinese therapy, to increase circulation to the affected area. They’ll try anything and everything to hasten recovery. In their world, ignoring overuse injuries could end their careers.

Let’s turn our attention to those smiles up on the winners’ podium. Who is really the happiest? Intuitively, one would expect that the better the performance, the happier the athlete. A 1995 study found otherwise. When it comes to medaling at the Olympics, the happiest winner is wearing bronze. The scientists attributed this to “counterfactual thinking”.
Specifically, the winning athletes compared their actual performance to what might have happened and were either disappointed or thrilled. The gold medalists were delighted to have won, but were already catastrophizing about maintaining life at the top. The silver medalists were dissatisfied for coming so close. And the bronze medalists were universally ecstatic to be among the winners. The winners comparing themselves to unmet expectations were disenchanted. Those who barely beat the rest of the pack were thrilled. Time and again, similar studies have yielded the same results. Bronze medalists are the happiest.

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