Mind games give Ukrainian team-mates a calculated advantage
While some athletes watch movies or listen to music to relax away from competition, martial artists Robert Shyroian and Oleh Veredyba have found a unique way to occupy their time during the Youth Olympic Games Buenos Aires 2018. And they believe it is giving them a competitive advantage over their rivals.
Since meeting at the YOG, the Ukrainian room-mates have discovered a mutual love of mathematical puzzles, and have been challenging each other to solve various equations and problems throughout the Games. “It was one of the first things we talked about when we met,” explains Shyroian, who will compete in the men’s Kumite -68kg karate event on Thursday. “It’s been really interesting to test and challenge each other with different maths problems. We were even just doing it about five minutes ago!”
In addition to excelling at karate, Shyroian has taken part in competitive events for mathematics, physics and programming in Ukraine, enjoying particular success with maths as the third highest ranked student in the whole country. His mathematics success has seen him offered a full three-year scholarship at a leading school in the USA, where he began studying shortly before the YOG. Despite being there for less than a month, he has already been named captain of the maths team.
And since arriving in Buenos Aires he has found a kindred spirit in Veredyba, who won bronze in the men’s -55kg judo event earlier in the Games. In addition to a love of maths, the teenagers also discovered they are both from Dnipro. “Oleh is from my hometown, but we didn’t know each other before, so it was very exciting to meet him,” explains Shyroian. “He is very smart and he enjoys maths as well, so we have become very good friends.”
For Veredyba, their fondness for solving mathematical problems also benefits them when they step on the mat to compete. “Sport is not just physical; a lot of it is in the mind,” explains the 17-year-old. “You need to think when you are competing; you need to make calculations and use logic. Maths develops those skills. Studying also gives you the best break from sport. That’s why we enjoy thinking about these maths problems; it helps us develop our brains and gives us a little rest from sport.”
The pair cite the example of Ukrainian boxer Vasyl Lomachenko – the two-time Olympic gold medallist and current WBA world lightweight champion – who includes mental exercises and mathematics puzzles as part of his training regime, often being challenged by his sports psychologist to reorder a grid of random numbers in the quickest time possible. “Lomachenko does it to improve his concentration,” explains Shyroian. “People often think that you don’t need a brain to do sport, but actually if you are a good sportsman then you need to use your brain a lot.”
Veredyba believes that their ability to solve complicated maths problems gives them an advantage over their rivals. “In judo, sometimes the situation you are in can change really quickly,” he says. “So having that ability to think through problems logically helps me to find the right solution faster. The faster you can think, the better you will compete.” Shyroian agrees, adding: “I think maths really helps me because it develops logic. Before my fights I like to think how they will be, so I look at the different possibilities in the fight and plan how I might react in those situations. I think when I win it is more to do with my brain that anything else.”
So what sort of problems have they been trying to solve so far? “We’ve been talking a lot about probability, calculating the possibility of certain things happening,” explains Shyroian. With Veredyba already winning a medal in Buenos Aires, have they considered the probability of Shyroian also stepping on to the podium? “Yes, we have,” the 16-year-old admits. “We calculated the probability of me winning a medal and I would put it at 50 per cent.” With one medal already secured and Shyroian confident of adding another, have they begun doing the sums for more Olympic success in Tokyo in 2020? “No, we haven’t thought about that yet! I never calculated my chances of coming to the Youth Olympic Games, but now we are here enjoying this opportunity maybe we will need to think about it some more!”
If it all adds up, the newfound friends may find themselves sharing a room in another Olympic Village in the not-too-distant future.