The Summer Olympics in Tokyo, which officially begin today, will be held without fans because of COVID-19. A Johns Hopkins University expert on the types of motivation that influence performance is available to discuss how that might affect outcomes at the games.

Vikram Chib, an associate professor in Johns Hopkins University’s Department of Biomedical Engineering, has studied the neural aspects behind performance, including what happens when people choke under pressure, and how having an audience can make you perform better.

Chib’s work has demonstrated that when people are being watched by others, certain areas of the brain engage. It's called mentalizing—thinking about other people and what they are thinking. The act of mentalizing will either energize and invigorate performance, or sink it, he says. In the case of Olympians, Chib suspects they will perform at top level whether the seats are full or empty.

“Spectators are a form of motivation—it's an incentive, right? People cheering you on, it gets you amped up, or it could make you nervous,” Chib says. “But I think that when people are very skilled and highly trained, as these athletes are, and they've been doing it as long as they have been, I don't think it will make a big of a difference.”

Video on what happens mentally to make Olympians choke under the global spotlight: