The human brain is an incredibly powerful tool that rarely receives the attention it deserves. First, we should discuss some basic nomenclature of the brain. A piece of brain tissue the size of a grain of sand contains 100,000 neurons and 1 billion synapses that all communicate with each other. Brain information moves anywhere from 1 mph to 268 mph. Our brain generates about 12-25 watts of electricity which can power a low wattage LED light. Recent research also shows that an athlete’s brains can focus more on a task than others. In a 2015 study named The Athlete’s Brain: Cross Sectional Evidence for Neural Efficiency during Cycling Exercise, it was shown that cyclists with high levels of aerobic fitness who completed cycling of submaximal exercise had lower brain activity compared to their peers. It showed individuals with higher aerobic power had better neural efficiency. Another study in 2012, named Individual Differences in Expert Motor Coordination associated with White Matter Microstructure in the Cerebellum, showed karate experts had greater white matter changes in their brains than novice karate athletes. This is likely because of complex synchronization of movements of the upper limbs and trunk. White matter is associated with how the brain learns and functions.
What does this all mean?
It is the combination of physical and mental readiness that separates the greatest athlete in the world from the rest of us. Generally speaking, coaches, fitness professionals, physicians, physical therapist, and athletic trainers focus on physical development almost exclusively. How often is psychological rehab a priority? Do we know the emotional state of our players? There are several tools that can be utilized that are quick and concise. I will discuss these shortly.
First, a brief discussion about psychology and how it can affect athletes. It has been shown that high levels of stress can reduce an athlete’s reaction time through increases in muscle tension. It is also clear that anxiety can have almost paralyzing effects on performance, leaving an athlete with a complete loss of motor control. Can your brain really cause you to have an injury?
In 2010, a study by Ivarsson and Johnson showed certain Psychological Factors as Predictors for Injuries among Senior Soccer Players. The study used 48 male Swedish soccer players between the ages of 16-36 years of age. The players would complete five different questionnaires used to measures athlete’s different coping mechanisms. The study showed that two coping factors of self blame and acceptance increased injury occurrence by 14.6%. Other factors such as somatic trait anxiety (butterflies in the stomach) stress susceptibility (how stress affects individuals differently) and trait irritability (how irritable a person can get in a certain situation) all increased risk of injury. If the brain is so powerful regarding increased levels of focus for athletes, it must have a negative effect due to stress and anxiety. A meta analysis study named Influences of Psychological Factors and Rehabilitation Adherence on the Outcome Post Anterior Cruciate Ligament Injury/Surgical Reconstruction showed some interesting data. It complied tons of data from 10 different studies showing a relationship between psychology and injury. The conclusion was some type of psychosocial factor such as fear of re-injury, self talk, adherence of treatment, and social support system led to an injury.
Action Coaches can take
There are several technological tools available that gauge the emotional state of your players. Fit for 90 and Kinduct Fitness are team monitoring websites and applications that assess a player’s emotional state, soreness, and fatigue. Questionnaires addressing an athlete’s mood and stress levels are provided. These are basic and take minimum time to complete. It is recommended that the athlete completes this prior to a morning training session. The monitoring systems notify coaches when the questionnaires have been completed. It is advised that the coach modify the training session based on the athlete’s stress levels. We all know the motto of going 110% every time is not a smart way to train. It is of great benefit to an athlete’s short and long term performance if training modifications are made based on relevant information.
This type of technology is not available everywhere however, there are alternate methods that can be used to gauge the emotional state of your players. Questions such as “how are you feeling today?” are simple and can go a long way. It is important that all athletes understand the relevance of the information and that a culture of open and honest communication is established. Developing trust and rapport among the group is integral for the success of such monitoring systems. Communicate effectively with your players and ask them opened ended questions. You don’t have to be a psychologist to read and understand someone’s body language. Example questions could be: What did you do over the weekend? What upcoming test in class do you have this week? How did you do on your last exam? It is important to understand that certain players are going to be difficult to read and more introverted than others. Here, the awareness and experience of the coaching staff becomes crucial.
Prehabbing the mind
It is common practice for coaches to incorporate prehab routines within their training program. In my experience, however the majority of coaches ignore obvious psychological traits that could be addressed during this time. Why is this?
There have been several studies discussing how meditation can significantly reduce stress levels. A study by Dr. Zoran Josipovic from the department of neural science at New York University studied the brains of Buddhist monks. Dr. Josipovic is focusing his study on how meditation can achieve a state of oneness. Essentially, this is called the default network of the brain. There is an intrinsic and extrinsic network of the brain. The extrinsic is active when focusing on external task like sports, while the intrinsic is reflecting on a person’s emotion. While studying 20 monks using a functional (MRI) machine that tracked blood flow during meditation, it was discovered that both networks of the brain were active simultaneously. It is suggested that this aids the monks in feeling a sense of constant harmony within the environment.
Most people don’t have years of experience in mediation like Buddhist monks. Coaches also can’t devote an entire training sessions to mediation. Simple implementation of meditating for five minutes before or after a training session can be beneficial. Over a period of practice it will become an important routine for your athletes. Using these simple tools, your players can become stronger both physically and mentally. This should be the ultimate goal of every coach. Please share any techniques or tools you use to gauge and train your players ‘minds.
- Roberts, R.E. “Individual Differences in Expert Motor Coordination Associated with White Matter Microstructure in the Cerebellum.” Cerebral Cortex (New York, NY). Oxford University Press, 14 Aug. 2012. Web.
- Ludyga, Sebastian, Thomas Gronwald, and Kuno Hottenrott. “The Athlete’s Brain: Cross-Sectional Evidence for Neural Efficiency during Cycling Exercise.” Neural Plasticity. Hindawi Publishing Corporation, 27 Dec. 2015. Web.
- Mendonza, Minetta, Hiral Patel, and Sandra Bassett. “Researchers Survey the Psychological Factors of Medication Adherence.” The Pharmaceutical Journal (2015): 1-10. Web.
- Ivarsson, Andreas, and Urban Johnson. “Psychological Factors as Predictors of Injuries Among Senior Soccer Players. A Prospective Study.” Journal of Sports Science & Medicine. Assist Group, 1 June 2010. Web.
- Geld, Natalie. “Zoran Josipovic, PhD: The Functioning of Anti-Correlated Neural Networks.” Society for Mind Brain Sciences. N.p., 15 Aug. 2012. Web.