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Want To Become A Better Athlete? Train Your Brain
By Joe Vennare for Life by DailyBurn
|Elite athletes stand head and shoulders above the rest -- and that's not just because of their impressive size and stature. Physique and fitness aside, there's more to gaining a competitive edge than meets the eye. While it's true that good genetics and plenty of practice are big part of the equation, separating a contender from the pretenders might have more to do with brains than brawn. A growing body of research suggests that getting ahead starts inside of our heads. But can honing the athletic brain be the key to unlocking elite-level performance?|
Mind Over Matter
Athletes and coaches have long touted the benefits of acquiring a mental edge. Wind sprints are tapped as a way to toughen up a team, making them more resilient and thus harder to defeat. Chants and cheers can boost motivation. Setting goals can reduce anxiety and lay the foundation for achieving success on and off the playing field. But, building the type of brain power that influences athletic performance goes way beyond Sports Psychology 101. Where psychological tactics like visualization and self-talk were once the epitome of mental fitness, these techniques only begin to scratch the surface of true mental capacity. Advancements in neuroscience and technology are making it possible for athletes to literally think fast.
But before we can alter or enhance the way our mind processes information in the athletic arena, we have to determine what exactly is going on up there. There’s a complex relationship between thought and action, our mind and our body's mechanics. And the significance of that relationship increases right along with the level of competition we undertake.
When Peyton Manning takes a snap from center and drops back to deliver a pass, his mind and body work in complete synergy. In an instant he is able to survey the field and deliver a picturesque pass, while simultaneously eluding defenders. Research has shown that executing each move begins when the brain sets a goal: Pick up the ball or throw the pass. Different segments of the brain spring into action to bring this command to life. If there's a problem along the way, the brain will make corrections and revise its plan. This is true both for us and for Peyton Manning. The difference is that Manning's brain is likely much more efficient at controlling and correcting these motor skills.
Improving brain efficiency is what enables a skilled soccer players to dribble a ball through cones without looking at their feet. It also explains how it's possible for cricket players to predict the type of pitch an opposing player would deliver, just by watching a video of the windup. By devoting less energy and attention to the execution of basic movements, high-performing athletes are able to focus on the intricacies of each situation. While onlookers seem astonished at the speed of pro sports, the pros have optimized their minds for the types of decisions and reactions they will encounter in real time.
Engineering The Athletic Brain
Creating this type of optimization among athletes is less about traditional practice (i.e. the repetition of physical skills). According to Jason Sada, President of Axon Sports, an industry leader in athletic brain training and protection, an athlete's mind must also be developed to unlock his or her full potential.
Using touch screens and computer "games" that improve reaction time and anticipation, among other cognitive skills, Axon helps athletes log more mental reps than they could on the playing field -- without all the extra risk of wear and tear. The company's "above the neck" training is also designed to improve pattern recognition, high-speed decision making and focus. The end goal: to create what Axon refers to as the "athletic brain," a high-performing machine that is pre-programed to anticipate, read and react to in-game scenarios more effectively.
Upgrade Your Brain
If physical exercise conditions the body, cognitive training rewires the mind. Which means, if we're going to upgrade our brain, we need to rethink how we think about mental training.
Professor Jocelyn Faubert from the University of Montreal is doing just that. He believes dominance in any athletic domain "can't be just physical; there's something about their brains."
Faubert authored one study that proved this assertion to be true. Using a complex 3D motion-tracking procedure, athletes of varying ability levels saw colored spheres flash on a screen and were asked to track the spheres as they moved and changed colors. As predicted, Faubert and his team found pro athletes to be more proficient than non-athletes, performing the task at high speeds and improving more quickly as time went on.
The outcomes of Faubert's research support the claims that Axon Sports is chasing down, that a key component to elite-level performance is all in our head. And from the neck up, a new breed of cognitive tools is already taking shape. Here's a look at just three of the emerging brain training technologies.
Watch and learn. Faubert has already teamed up with CogniSens Athletics to create NeuroTracker, a training system that enhances multiple-object tracking. The ability to track multiple objects at once prepares athletes for high-speed sports situations, like deciphering a defense or reading a baseball as it leaves the pitcher hand. In an attempt to condition the mind using a computer screen, users begin by monitoring a series of targets bouncing around on the big screen. Subjects start out sitting, but progress to standing or performing sports-specific movements while at the same time tracking targets. Over time, the objects speed up and the user is asked to perform more complex movements to get them thinking on their feet.
Take a shot. The team at IntelliGym® has devised a system for improving shot selection and on-court vision outside of the gym. As a matter of fact, there's no ball or basket. Using a computer screen and keyboard, athletes play a virtual game to improve sport-related skills including peripheral vision and reaction speed. And this isn't just for basketball players -- a similar training approach has brought success to hockey players and pilots, too. In one NASA-sponsored research project conducted on U.S. and Israeli Air Force pilots, the cognitive training improved their performance in the cockpit by 30 percent, thereby minimizing "aerial errors and the collateral damage."
See for yourself. The Retina Institute of Hawaii is teaming up with Nike to create a one-of-a-kind neurosensory and physical training facility. Translation: Doctors are assessing performance based on what an athlete is able to see, not what a scout thinks they see. The evaluation includes a trip to the NIKE SPARQ Sensory Station for a 30-minute evaluation that measures things like visual clarity, depth perception and hand-eye coordination. Next, an eye exam is conducted to further assess vision. Finally, individuals complete five to 10 sports vision training sessions at the Center of Excellence targeting specific sensory strengths and weaknesses.
Meanwhile, companies like Axon Sports are only just scratching the surface of athletic cognitive training. In December 2013 Axon announced a partnership with GSK Human Performance Lab that would enable these two collaborators "to understand and assist elite athletes in their complete body-brain preparation." Because after all, what athletes, coaches and franchises aren't looking for the complete package?
Once upon a time weight training and cardio conditioning were enough to transform an average Joe into an all-pro. With more and more individuals striving to harness a competitive edge, the evolution of sport is only in its infancy. By transforming the latest neuroscience research into actionable game-changing performance enhancers, don't be surprised if brains eventually overtake brawn in the battle for athletic supremacy.
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The Brain-Training Secrets Of Olympic Athletes
The Huffington Post | by Carolyn Gregoire
February 11, 2014
With the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics well underway, millions of spectators are marveling at the physical skill and talent of the athletes competing in the Games.
But behind these athletes' physical feats is an arguably even more impressive mental prowess cultivated through years of training the mind to tune out distractions, reduce stress and anxiety and build the focus and stamina they need to achieve optimal performance. In fact, it's not a stretch to say that great athletes succeed because they know how to stay at the top of their game mentally.
Former Olympic gold medal-winning decathlon runner Bruce Jenner once said, "You have to train your mind like you train your body." He's echoing an athletic maxim that's practically a cliché: sports are 90 percent mental and 10 percent physical.
"The physical aspect of the sport can only take you so far," said Olympic gold medal-winning gymnast Shannon Miller during an interview with the Dana Foundation. "The mental aspect has to kick in, especially when you’re talking about the best of the best. In the Olympic games, everyone is talented. Everyone trains hard. Everyone does the work. What separates the gold medalists from the silver medalists is simply the mental game.”
But you don't have to be vying for a gold medal to benefit from training your brain. Here are five mind hacks from Olympic athletes that can help boost performance in any part of your life.
Visualize the outcome you want.
Many athletes have used the technique of "mental imagery," or visualization, to up their game and perform at their peak. Research on the brain patterns of weightlifters found that the patterns activated when a weightlifter lifted heavy weights were activated similarly when they simply imagined lifting, Psychology Today reported, and some studies have suggested that mental practice can be almost as effective as physical training. One study, published in the Journal of Sport & Exercise Psychology in 1996, found that imagining weight lifting caused actual changes in muscle activity.
"Mental imagery impacts many cognitive processes in the brain: motor control, attention, perception, planning, and memory," researcher Angie LeVan wrote in Psychology Today. "So the brain is getting trained for actual performance during visualization. It’s been found that mental practices can enhance motivation, increase confidence and self-efficacy, improve motor performance, prime your brain for success, and increase states of flow."
But visualizing is more than just thinking about an upcoming event. When athletes use visualization, they truly feel the event taking place in their mind's eye.
"During visualization, she incorporates all of her senses into the experience," sports psychologist Dr. JoAnn Dahlkoetter wrote in a blog on The Huffington Post about a speed skater she works with. "She feels her forefoot pushing off the track, she hears her skating splits, and she sees herself surging ahead of the competition. She experiences all of the elements of her race in explicit detail before executing her performance."
Snowboarder Jamie Anderson won gold in slopestyles at Sochi this weekend, the third medal to be won by an American so far at the Games. Her secret to success? Knowing how to stay chilled out, even in the middle of the biggest competition of her life.
"Last night, I was so nervous," Anderson told the Washington Post. "I couldn’t even eat. I was trying to calm down. Put on some meditation music, burn some sage. Got the candles going. Just trying to do a little bit of yoga... It was all about good vibration. Thankfully, I slept really good. I did some mantras. It worked out for me.”
The Washington Post noted that this tactic represents a major shift from Olympians of the past, who tended to rely on tough, Type A coaches and disciplinarian tactics.
From the Winter Olympics to the NBA, more and more professional athletes -- including Kobe Bryant, Tiger Woods, LeBron James and Olympic gold medal-winning volleyball players Misty May-Trainor and Kerry Walsh -- have turned to the benefits of meditation to help their performances. The practice can help improve an athlete's mental game by reducing stress, increasing focus and attention span, and boosting emotional well-being.
Evict the obnoxious roommate in your head.
Do your thoughts tend to lift you up -- or are you constantly tearing yourself with down with an inner monologue of fear, self-doubt and feelings of unworthiness? Great athletes, through all the challenges they face, are able to exert a great deal of control over the way they talk to themselves, and they've managed to evict the "obnoxious roommate" living in their heads that tells them they can't do it.
Instructional and motivation self-talk in particular gives athletes a leg up on the competition, according to sports psychologist Antonis Hatzigeorgiadis. A meta-analysis of sports psychological studies by Hatzigeorgiadis and colleagues published in Perspectives on Psychological Science found that instructional self-talk ("Keep your leg straight," "Use your core strength here") helped athletes to improve specific techniques or skills, while motivational self-talk ("You know you can do this!") helped them to succeed in strength and endurance-based tasks.
“The mind guides action," Hatzigeorgiadis said in a press release. "If we succeed in regulating our thoughts, then this will help our behavior."
Set smarter goals.
All Olympic athletes have a clear goal in front of them, and they dream big -- after all, they were once young athletes who could only dream of competing against the best in their field. Speed skater Dan Jansen, who won Olympic gold in 1994, said, "The higher you set your goals, the more you're going to work."
Try this tip that Olympic swimmer and three-time medal winner Dr. Gary Hall Sr. shared with Jim Afremow, author of The Champion's Mind:
The two most important parts of setting goals are that you write them down and that you put them someplace where you can see them every day. I usually recommend the bathroom mirror or refrigerator door, two places I know you will always look. When I was 16 years old, training for my first Olympic games, my coach wrote all of my goal times down on the top of the kickboard I was using every day in practice. I couldn't escape them, but the result, after executing the plan, was that I made the Olympic team.
So find your personal kickboard -- whether it's a Post-it next to your computer monitor or a reminder alert on your iPhone -- and make sure that your goals stay at the forefront of your mind. And when it comes to crafting the goals themselves, the more specific and actionable they are, the better. According to Power of Habit author Charles Duhigg, people often structure their goals incorrectly when creating New Year's resolutions.
"Very often they write out a list of goals, rather than writing a list of actions they're going to take and thinking hard about how to structure those behaviors so that they become habits," Duhigg told the Huffington Post.
Go with the 'flow.'
Getting into a flow mindset (often described as being "in the zone") can help athletes to consistently achieve optimal performance. Flow is defined as a mental state in which the individual transcends conscious thought and achieves a heightened state of effortless and unwavering concentration, calm and confidence. This flow state keeps pressures and distractions, both internal and external, from creeping into their minds and potentially harming their performance.
"Athletes who can achieve, maintain and regain [flow] are mentally tough," write Damon Burton and Thomas D. Raedeke in Sports Psychology for Coaches, noting that this state is critical for achieving personal excellence.
A flow state isn't just helpful for athletes -- surgeons performing challenging, state-of-the-art procedures report experiencing intense flow comparable to pro athletes. But flow states can also occur when we're writing, dancing, cooking or even reading a book. It helps us to become deeply involved with anything we're doing, and according to psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, author of Finding Flow, argues that it's the secret to a joyful life.
"It is the full involvement of flow, rather than happiness, that makes for excellence in life," Csikszentmihalyi writes in Psychology Today. "We can be happy experiencing the passive pleasure of a rested body, warm sunshine, or the contentment of a serene relationship, but this kind of happiness is dependent on favorable external circumstances. The happiness that follows flow is of our own making, and it leads to increasing complexity and growth in consciousness."
|Executive functioning is the new “hot” umbrella term used by teachers, counselors, and parents to describe a range of learning and attentional problems. Recent neuroscientific research on children and adults implicate failed executive functions, or their lack of engagement, not only in school-related performance issues, but in dysregulated emotional states experienced by those without executive function deficits. Such states are characterized by limited capacity for thought and reflection and automatic, reflexive reactions (Ford, 2010), similar to children with executive function deficits.|
Executive functioning is slow to fully develop. It emerges in late infancy, goes through marked changes during the ages of 2 through 6, and does not peak until around age 25. Adolescents’ limited executive functions are out of sync with their emerging freedom, sense of autonomy, intense emotions and sexual drive, failing to equip them with the reins needed to for appropriate restraint and good judgment during this time of temptation. When teens are unable to put the brakes on, they need parents to set external limits and be the stand-in for their underdeveloped executive functions.
Similarly, children with executive function deficits need external cues, prompts and reinformcements to supplant the self-regulatory functions they are lacking internally (Barkley, 2010).
Executive development happens primarily in the prefrontal cortex, a region of the brain more sensitive to stress than any other. Unlike anywhere else in the brain, even mild stress can flood the prefrontal cortex with the neurotransmitter dopamine, which causes executive functioning to shut down (Diamond, 2010).
What are executive functions anyway? Executive functions together play the role of executive director of the brain — making decisions, organizing, strategizing, monitoring performance and knowing when to start, stop, and shift gears (Cox, 2007, Zelazo, 2010). Executive functioning is essentially the conscious regulation of thought, emotion, and behavior (Zelazo, 2010). It is different from what we usually think of as intelligence, because it is independent of how much we know. It is an aspect of intelligence in that it involves expressing or translating what we know into action (Zelazo, 2010). One can be exceedingly bright but not be able to access and apply knowledge if there is limited executive function.
Key executive functions are: cognitive flexibility, inhibitory control (self-control), working memory, planning, and self-awareness (Zelazo, 2010). Without cognitive flexibility we cannot change our minds, shift attention or perspective, flexibly adapt to changes, see another point of view, solve problems or be creative. The ability to inhibit or control our impulses involves the capacity to stop and think and not act on our first instinct, but, instead, do what is needed or most appropriate. It allows us to direct our attention and be disciplined enough to stay on task even in the face of temptation and distraction, instead of being controlled by habit, feelings and external cues (Zelazo, 2010).
The ability to resist temptation and stay on task is the foundation of planning and being able to follow through on a plan. Additionally, the ability to plan involves being able to anticipate and reflect on the future, keep a goal in mind, and use reasoning to develop a strategy. Working memory allows us to follow instructions involving multiple steps and do them in the right order. It allows us to hold things in mind while relating one thing to another. This capacity allows us to follow a conversaton while keeping in mind what we want to say. It enables us to relate to something we’re learning to other things we know. It allows us to recognize cause and effect which, as research has shown, is essential to understanding other people’s reactions to us (Diamond, 2010). For example other people’s reactions may not make sense if we don’t remember what we said or did that led to it.
Self-awareness involves the ability to observe and monitor our performance so that we can make appropriate adjustments. It is the basis for regulating emotional expression and behavior. Self-awareness involves holding in mind a sense of ourselves, allowing us to have appropriate expections of ourselves, and learn from what we have done before.
A common denominator and basis of all executive functioning is the ability to hold things in mind, step back and reflect. Without this capacity, it is difficult to have perspective, judgment, or control. Studies with children at different ages before and after executive development is in place demonstrate that without being able to inhibit impulses and distractions and hold multiple things in mind, even if we know what to do and want to do the right thing, that intention may not translate into behavior (Diamond, 2010; Zelazo, 2010).
Therefore, admonishing or punishing children who are not following the rules because of limited executive function is not only ineffective, but leads children who are already often frustrated and discouraged to feel bad about themselves and unsupported. In order to intervene effectively with children, we must diagnose the problem accurately to determine when an issue is due to executive function deficit and not simply adolescent laziness or rebellion.
Barkely, R. (2010). The important role of executive funcitoning and self-rgulation in ADHD. In Russell A. Barkley, Ph.D. The Official Site. Retrieved August 8, 2010, from russellbarkley.org.
Diamond, A. (2010, May). What Do We Know About Child Development and the Brain That Can Help Promote Resilience and Help More Children Be Strong and Joyful? Paper Presented at the Annual International Trauma Conference, Boston, MA.
Zelazo, P.P. (2010, May) Executive Function and Emotion Regulation: A Developmental Perspective Ph.D. Paper Presented at the Annual International Trauma Conference, Boston, MA.
Ford, J.D. (May 2010) Developmental Trauma-informed Treatment for Children and Adults: The Next Pardigm Shift in Psychotherapy. Paper Presented at the Annual International Trauma Conference, Boston, MA.
Cox, A.J. (2007). No Mind Left Behind: Understanding and Fostering Executive Control–The Eight Essential Brain Skills Every Child Needs to Thrive. New York : A Perigee Book/Penguin Group