Brain training for athletes:By Adam Sinicki
The most powerful muscle in our body is our brain. Except that's not true because the brain is not a muscle. I hate it when people say that! Still, the Brain is possibly the most powerful thing in our body. Not in terms of actual strength obviously but by harnessing it's abilities properly you can increase your strength, your agility, your intelligence and your speed exponentially.
The way the brain essentially works is by sending chemical signals through a network of brain cells and synapses (the gap between brain cells where the message crosses), kind of like a giant spider diagram like they made you draw in school. Infact that's part of the reason teachers are told to use spider-diagrams; because it's a format that the brain is used to and so should be conducive to learning. Like all these things though it's hippy crap and bollocks.
Most importantly though, each time you use on of those synapses you strengthen the connection making it stronger, quicker and more easily accessible for next time. That's why practice makes perfect.
Like your muscles your brain is an organ that can be trained and improved.
Below are several ways, proven and experimental, in which an athlete can do just that. Through brain foods, 'overspeed training', visualisation and other techniques you can make the most of your mind and use 100% of your brain (I also hate it when people say that, it's another very misleading statement).
This is a subject that I'm very interested in and it's what I intend to do my dissertation on so I appologise if I go on... (because I don't go on anywhere else on the site...)
Brain plasticity is the name used to describe the plastic nature of our brains. Funny that. By 'plastic' is meant maleable; our brains can actually change shape depending on how we use them, much like our muscles. This is a relatively new finding and quite a hot topic in neuroscience at the moment. One study on cellists showed that the area of their motor cortex responsible for their fingers was much larger than for your regular joe. Another study involved taking participants and getting them to enter a programme where every day they would try to identify a material by feeling it with their little finger. Again, the corresponding part of the brain became larger. What this basically means, is that if you practice doing a certain action, you can actually change the shape of your brain to tailor it for that activity.
As mentioned in a previous article, when you visualise going through certain motions you use the same connections in your brain as if you were actually going through them. This means that you can practice a kata or golf swing in your mind, practicing it over and over again until it's perfect without even needing to get up. Obviously it has limitations as you probably can't accurately visualise the trajectory of the ball.
Visualising in this way is beneficial for bodybuilders and gym goers too if only to be able to practice correct form on the movements. Some people even claim that your muscles can benefit from merely imaging doing the exercise. Whether or not there is any truth in this I can't say, but I certainly wouldn't suggest cancelling your gym membership just yet.
Visualisation is most effective however when it is used in combination with actual training. Arnold Schwarzenegger used to imagine his biceps getting bigger with each curl, eventually 'swelling up as big as the room' and we all know how that turned out. This can work as it focusses your mind on the task in hand and engages the muscle further. If my 'psychosomatic excellence' theory (see below) is right that could have an effect too.
Many motivation speakers also recommend using visualisation techniques to visualise things going well. Visualise yourself where you want to be in two years and crap like that. The idea is that it gets you used to the idea of being succesful and so you act like someone successful and so you become successful (a self-fulfilling prophecy). Most of these motivational speakers are dicks let's be honest, but obviously doing this will help you to focus on your goal and will also boost confidence. Visualising the body you want in two months, or in the gym imagining yourself pumping out succesful reps before you start can't do any harm (definitely don't visualise dropping them on your face... but then why would anyone do that ever?)
This is why I often visualise myself in a hot tub with lots of bi-sexual women who are feeding me sandwiches. So far no luck. For some reason Jonathan Ross is there too...
In tennis the 'zone' is a state of mind where you are so focussed on the ball that you've blocked out all distracting thoughts. You are acting basically on instinct and you can almost see the ball in slow motion. In martial arts this is called 'no mind'. This kind of quick instinct also kicks in in emergencies. For example, when you are in the kitchen and you drop a glass but somehow throw yourself down quickly enough to catch it (and then wish someone had been around to watch). Obviously a complete mental focus has fantastic advantages for all sports but is very hard to obtain. Even for lifting weights, completely focussing on the work in hand means that 100% of your energy is being put into the movement and you know you're getting the best of your workout.
Many people who medidate claim to reach a high plane of existence or become 'one' with the universe. They do this by completely clearing their mind, often they achieve this by humming or repeating a 'mantra' (a single random word used to focus the mind (if I did it my word would be 'flanje'). There is however a logical psychological explanation for this (sorry to ruin it, kind of like saying Santa's not real huh?).
Basically by completey stopping your thoughts you in effect stop using certain parts of your brain. If these parts of the brain are inactive for long enough they'll 'shut down', almost as though that part of the brain is sleeping while you are still conscious. Obviously that can have some pretty funky side effects, such as when areas of your brain responsible for feeling your body shut down and you become 'one with the universe'.
So while monks may well be wasting their lives (sorry) learning to concentrate and zone out all pervading thoughts has its advantages. So what I guess I'm basically saying is that meditating could have benefits for athletes. Especially if you can translate this into 'meditation in movement', as taught in Tai Chi.
That can't be right... meditating is meant to be for losers...
Overspeed training is the incredibly cool name for a training method used by sprinters and football players to increase running speed. Basically it involves finding a way to run up to 10% faster than usual, by getting towed, or by running downhill, or with wind behind you. The idea is that by doing this, you are 'teaching' your body and your brain the movement necesary to create that kind of speed and that hopefully they'll eventually be able to repdoduce it on their own. In theory this technique could be used for several other endeavours. For example there are machines that take your arm through the perfect golf swing. Having your friend help you with a heavy weight might even have a similar effect.
Still you should do overspeed training just because it's called overspeed training!
'The worst thing isn't doing a stunt or not doing a stunt, but half doing a stunt' - Jackie Chan The above quote perfectly explains why allot of people get hurt when they hurdling something or trying to flip. The problem is not that they can't flip, but that they kind of pull out half way through. And incase you haven't noticed, you're upside down half way through a flip; bad time to bail. If you clear your mind and just go for it you'll find you have more chance of success than if you bottle it or let doubt creap into your mind and you'd be surprised by what you can achieve. You may have noticed that I can jump over very high things. That's one of my most impressive abilities, but the main reason I can is that I don't have any fear when I approach the jump. If I started thinking about how I might clip my foot and face plant I wouldn't stand a chance (damn, that would be bad...). Obviously the same applies to lifting a heavy weight or doing a full set.
One sports trainer (I can't remember who... I should really start citing my references but it's in a Men's Health issue and I have like a million. Just trust me okay? (Most of what I know can be found in the books on my bibliography)) uses a simple technique to help give her (I remember it's a woman and everything) athletes a psychological edge and that's to 'imagine themselves having all of their own abilities plus the abilities of the oposition'. This actually works quite well I find, (and when I'm playing tennis against a girl I like to imagine I have tits). Try it.
Brain training isn't limited to your Game-boy DS (or whatever they're calling it these days). There are many ways you can improve the quality of your mind and its dexterity. You can train your memory, your speed and improve your IQ. Again like muscles, the brain follows the rule of 'use it or lose it'. Okay so you won't actually lose your brain as such, but it won't be as strong as it could be if you were constantly testing it. Many studies have shown that old people who use their brains regularly for reading or playing chess (that's what old people do right?) are less likely to become senile or lose their memory.
Exercising for starters has been shown to have positive effects on our brain so do that, although you should be doing that already. Certain diets have also been shown to be good for the brain and of course oily fish such as tuna is one of the foods cited as having a positive affect. The most hotly touted 'brain food' however is the 'ginkgo billoba' extract often sold as pills, and is supposed to help boost your memory and attention. I tried it for a while and didn't notice any massive increase but then I'm already a genius. Still, it's 100% natural and allegedly has other health benefits so if you can afford it you may as well try it yourself. An interesting fact is that the ginkgo billoba plant is possibly the oldest species of plant today and a 'living fossil'.
Using it regularly will also keep it nimble too so try to read a bit or do sums as regularly as possible and games where you have to think several moves ahead such as chess have also been shown to be effective. Training in ambidexterity has also been implicated in IQ increases and an act as simple as brushing your teeth with your left hand everyday can have benefits. Just as we can train IQ, so can we train other aspects of our brain; for athletes spatial awareness is one of the areas that are of most interest, which can be developed through computer games or bouncing a ball against a wall and catching it.
Psychosomatic illness... psychosomatic excellence?
Does our personality reflect the chemicals our brain produces, or do the chemicals our brain produces reflect our personality? The fact that brain plasticity has shown our brain can reflect our behaviour makes the question even more relevant.
Many studies have also shown that a positive mental attitude can help us to recover from illness. So the question I have is could it also work the other way? Could a positive mental attitude also improve our physical ability, strength and speed? I believe it can and I call this 'psychosomatic excellence'.
Priming the mood
Your mood can also affect your performance. This is obvious as your mood is linked to the release of many hormones within your body. Chemicals such as testosterone (the fight or flight hormone - good) and melatonin (the sleep hormone - bad). We've all heard stories of mothers who've lifted cars to save their children in times of crisis (well I've heard those stories anyway) and many of us will find ourselves in similar situations, where we manage to lift more than we knew we could when we're in trouble. This is obviously a survival method and kicks in during times of extreme fear. Obviously I don't recommend becoming extremely frightened in the gym - that's just weird and you're more likely to just run out of there screaming. It does however demonstrate once again the incredible connection between our body and mind.
Obviously if you're in a funk then your workout won't be much good, or your performance in a sport. You need to cheer yourself up to raise energy levels and the best way to do this is through music. Studies have shown that music or playlists that start with a slow tempo and gradually increase are likely to have the best effect. As well as happiness though, anger is an emotion commonly used to productive effect. If you're in a bad mood there's almost no better time to hit the gym and take it out on the weights.
If you're in a real strop though, even this can be beneficial and it's a technique that I invented myself. What you do is pretend you're in a film, and you've reached the low point at the end of the second act. Life is shit and you're considering giving up... put on some slow music and sulk... but then! No! What's he doing? He's... no! He's lifting weights! He will never surrender! (que rocky theme tune). See? Even misery can be a motivated factor, so long as you don't hang yourself first that's never good.
I float like a butterfly and sting like a bee - Muhammad Ali
I float like a carrier bag (when it's windy... I'm unpredictable) and sting like orange juice in your eye - Adam Sinicki
Just as getting yourself into a correct frame of mind (completely focussed, highly confident, good mood) can help boost your performance; so can doing the oposite ruin an oponent's state of mind. No one knew this better than Ali who was famous for psyching out his oponents with witty jibes; for Ali the fight was often won before he even set foot inside the ring. Genghis Kahn took this further and used to have the front line of his army slice off their own heads before battle - just to psych out their enemies. I really don't recommend that technique for bodybuilders or sports teams though.