Which Is The Fastest Lane?

How important is psychology in sport? Ask any experienced coach or psychologist, and they’ll tell you it’s paramount. One day an athlete might be able to put in a record-breaking performance - the next they’re stuck in last place.

For years, commentators and coaches have argued that the same weird phenomenon is going on for swimmers in lane 8. Swimming in the outside lane is regularly associated with worse-than-expected performances. But why?

Experts hypothesise that swimmers in the outside lane don’t have a good view of how fast other swimmers are swimming. They set off on what they think is a reasonable pace only to find out that they’re a couple of strokes behind at the end of the length. But is it right to simply blame swimmer miscalculation or is something more deep-seated going on?

"...to everybody's surprise, he wound up losing the race."

If miscalculation were the issue, then you would expect the problem of lane 8 to go away at an event like the Olympics where swimmers know they have to swim as fast as they can if they want to be in with a chance of winning a medal. But Michael Phelps’ failure to win a medal in the 400-meter Individual Medley at the London Olympics in 2012, punches holes in that theory. Surely, he wanted to do the best he could at the pinnacle of his career? But to everybody's surprise, he wound up losing the race.

Scientists Jack Brehm and Elizabeth Self from the University of Kansas offer an explanation of what might be going on here.  In 1989, they developed “motivational intensity theory” - a theory which hypothesised that people only put in as much effort into a project as they believe is needed: no more, no less.

"All that matters is whether somebody thinks they’re doing what needs to be done"

What’s striking about the theory is that it predicts that it doesn’t matter how big the prize for that effort is, whether it’s a gold medal or a piece of fruit from a tree. All that matters is whether somebody thinks they’re doing what needs to be done to get what they want. In other words, they only put in the amount of effort they believe is absolutely necessary.

So what does this have to do with lane 8? What it means is that people in lane 8 who cannot see the other competitors may not get the motivational impetus they need to win. Though they might believe that they’re trying their hardest, their brain may be unconsciously undermining their efforts, causing them to exert less energy than they otherwise could. Thus, the reason lane 8 seems to be a curse could be explained by the fact that swimmers can’t see how other competitors are performing.

What’s interesting about the theory is that the reverse also holds true. Top athletes may perform worse than they otherwise could if their competition is performing poorly - something you also see regularly in competitive swimming.

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