Why athletes are taking acting classes to prepare for the Olympics

Some Olympic athletes in Australia are taking acting classes to help prepare them for the 2016 Rio Olympic Games. How will acting help their physical performance?

Adrees Latif/Reuters/File
An athlete holds a gold medal from the London 2012 Olympic Games.

Athletes around the world are already preparing for the 2016 Olympic Games, which are set to take place in Rio de Janeiro throughout August.

How are some athletes preparing for the big stage? Acting classes.

In Australia, 20 Olympic hopefuls from around the country travelled to Canberra to participate in a Rio Ready workshop held at the Australian Institute of Sport. The leader, a sport scientist named David Martin, said the purpose of the workshop is to push athletes beyond the physical aspects of the Olympic Games and work on the external pressures that are a guaranteed force.

“I’ve been to five Olympic Games, and none of them are smooth, none of them are easy,” Martin said, reported ABC News. “There’s always a truck that breaks down, there’s a bomb scare. There can be delayed flights, there can be sicknesses.”

Participating in the Olympic Games is viewed as an honor, but it comes at a cost. A paper by Olympic trainer Ken Hodge and psychologist Gary Hermansson looks at the psychological stressors experienced by Olympic athletes and how preparation can impact their performance. Many athletes experience high levels of stress and irritability from living in close quarters with little privacy, monotony, and intensified security, leading to what they call the Second-Week Blues.

“Such relatively minor issues tend to become amplified as the lead-up to competition occurs. There is usually a period of heightened tension as the competition gets closer and athletes taper and/or intensify towards ‘the big moment’. Such issues can be especially frustrating for athletes who do not compete until the second week of the Games,” they explain in Athletic Insight: The Online Journal of Sport Psychology.

Martin said that much of the difficulty when it comes to the games is overcoming such unavoidable stress. He said the Rio Ready workshop combines special forces training, airport security, and improvisation acting. The ability to improvise assists athletes in developing the mental fortitude needed to adapt and overcome these stressors, allowing them to focus on their physical performance.

The workshop also addresses conflict, a part of the Olympics that is nearly unavoidable with so many world-class athletes – who are competing against one another—in close quarters.

"You would think it's just exciting, it's amazing going to the Olympics, but you can sit in your room and it's just a pressure cooker," Martin told ABC News.

Kathy Tyner wrote a blog for KD Conservatory that explores benefits of acting classes that can affect multiple facets of life. In particular, learning to improvise and play different characters assists people – including athletes – with interpersonal skills and learning to quickly deal with difficult situations. Playing another character allows individuals to experience other perspectives and better relate to others, a skill that is invaluable when surrounded by athletes of various cultures, socioeconomic means, and personalities.

“[To] truly capture the essence of the character and portray the role in a believable way, the actor must place themselves in the shoes – and often inside the mind – of someone whose viewpoints may be foreign to them so that they can understand them. This is a skill that is incredibly beneficial in all aspects of life, from interpersonal relationships to business negotiations to conflict resolution of any sort,” Ms. Tyner wrote.

Shelley Watts, 27, is an amateur Australian boxer who won gold at the 2014 Commonwealth Games. She is readying herself for Rio, and said the workshop was useful for her Olympic preparation.

"Weekends like this, where you can have some of those challenges and situations and obstacles pop up, to get yourself accustomed to being able to deal with things, they're really important and crucial," she told ABC News.

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