Why Olympic Figure Skaters Don’t Get Dizzy While Spinning

Curious viewers of the Beijing Winter Olympics want to know why. “How are figure skaters not giddy? has been one of the top Google searches over the past week.

So how do these athletes manage to spin their heads without falling?

Not so much, because they have learned to minimize it.

Although they sometimes fall on landing, figure skaters generally spin through the air without losing their balance. That’s because they’ve conditioned their bodies and brains to negate that dizzying sensation, experts say.

American figure skater Mirai Nagasu, who won a bronze medal at the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea, says she feels the spins but has learned to center herself over the years.

“I think we have a learned ability against the momentum that hits us as we spin,” she says.

Kathleen Cullen, professor of biomedical engineering at Johns Hopkins University, has a more scientific answer. She studies the vestibular system, which is responsible for our sense of balance and movement, and says that turning without tripping over dizziness is an art perfected over time.
Early in their careers, skaters and other athletes feel lightheaded when spinning, Cullen says. But ultimately they train their brain to better interpret this feeling.
“There’s a really deep fundamental thing that happens in the brains of people like dancers or skaters over a lot of training. And it’s basically a change in the way the brain processes information,” Cullen said. said.

“As you turn around, you activate the semicircular canals, the rotation sensors. They’re filled with fluid and they sense your rotation. But when you stop, the fluid has inertia and it tends to keep going. move. In fact, they have a false sense of movement.”

Over years of training, figure skaters‘ brains have adapted and learned to ignore this mistake, she says.

“This happens over time with every workout, day after day, as the brain compares its expectations with what it’s actually getting from its sensory receptors.”

Team USA's Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue skate on Day 10 of the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics on February 14, 2022.

In short, says Cullen, most people feel like the world keeps spinning even after it stops spinning. But Olympians, and skaters in particular, usually don’t because their brains have changed to suppress sensation.

Athletes also learn ways to reduce their dizziness. For example, focusing on a fixed reference or stationary object minimizes dizziness and loss of balance.

“Ballet dancers often turn their heads with each turn to fix a visual reference. Similarly, at the end of the turn, athletes fix their eyes on a specific spot on the wall to provide a fixed reference,” Cullen explains.

Figure skater Zhu Yi of China competes in the women's short program at the 2022 Winter Olympics.
The brain and inner ear are in constant communication with the body and with each other to achieve balance, says Brigid Dwyer, Assistant Professor of Neurology at Boston University School of Medicine.

“For most people, however, dizziness is only a potential problem during faster, more vigorous activities,” says Dwyer. “Amazingly, when needed, our brains can be tricked over time into better handling the dizzying tasks we encounter.”

Here are some other common Google search queries about figure skating:

Why do some figure skaters wear tights over their boots?

Nagasu says it all comes down to personal choice.

Some people wear pantyhose over their boots if their boots are scuffed, she says. Others, like Courtney Hicks, gold medalist at the 2013 United States International Figure Skating Classic, say wear tights over boots helps elongate the appearance of their legs.

But trends have changed in recent years, with many skaters opting to wear tights that show off their boots, says Nagasu.

Courtney Hicks of the United States performs during a women's singles free skating event in Nagano, Japan in November 2015.

What is the “kiss and cry” zone?

After their program, figure skaters wait for their scores in the aptly named “kiss and cry” area at the edge of the rink. Here, viewers get a glimpse of the athletes at one of their most tense moments.

Many figure skaters celebrate with kisses with their coaches – although not so much in the pandemic, as they are often masked – or burst into tears of disappointment.

“It’s supposed to be a pun. Either you give kisses to say how happy your score is, or it’s so bad you literally cry,” Nagasu said.

Kaori Sakamoto of Team Japan reacts after hearing her score during the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics.

Why do some figure skaters wear gloves?

Skaters can easily fall. And hitting the ice at high speed is no fun.

“The ice can be rough when you fall, especially when you consider how high we’re falling and the momentum of our rotations,” says Nagasu.

Gloves also keep skaters’ hands warm during competition.

In a highly competitive sport where the smallest advantage can make the difference, many athletes leave nothing to chance.

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