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The making of an elite athlete

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Michael Phelps
Michael Phelps of the United States, competing in the Men's 200m Butterfly Semifinal 2 during the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games. Phelps finished the race in first place in a time of 1:53.70, a new Olympic Record.
Photo by Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images

Watching elite athletes at the top of their game is quite a spectacle, but what makes them great? Are these athletes simply born with skills and bodies that the majority of people lack, or does their greatness come from dedication and practice? On The Daily Circuit Monday, we looked at three aspects of making an elite athlete: the brain, the body and the training. The show will kick off our Olympics Week on the show.

Dr. John Krakauer, a professor of neuroscience and neurology at Johns Hopkins and the director of the Center for the Study of Motor Learning and Brain Repair, joined the show to discuss the brains of athletes.

 "What we can say is that practice and repetition causes the brain to expand and develop, so naturally those athletes have advanced areas in their brain," he said. "We make value judgments; we like to think that people are gifted and inherently talented. We don't like to believe in hard work; most people don't work hard at anything. 

Krakauer said Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps practices seven hours a day, which is much more than most people are willing to commit to a very tough and often boring task.

Dr. Michael Joyner, director of the Human and Integrative Physiology Lab at Mayo Clinic, also joined the discussion.

Phelps "has a lot of physical gifts but has superb coaching," he said. "These individuals like Phelps are able to focus and relax. They give max effort yet stay relaxed and focus. Sort of zen element. How do you get there? You learn it, train it or you may have it."

Trevor Moawad, director of IMG Academies, also joined the conversation.


Becoming an elite athlete is a lot about mental fortitude. Decision making is a very important ability for the best athletes; it's not just about physical ability.