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4 Key Features of a "Sports Brain"


The brain, which is one of our most powerful organs, can be strengthened through regular training. Just like the muscles in our body grow and become stronger with consistent exercise, the same goes for our brains. However, instead of physical training, improving our brain function involves mental exercise. Brain training can be used to improve memory, speed of mental processing, vision, focus, concentration, and even self-esteem. Improving any or all of these brain functions through training can expand and enhance your athletic performance. In order to train the brain to achieve optimal sports performance, there are 4 important concepts to consider:

  • Plasticity
  • Autonomic Quieting and Sympathetic Control
  • Multi-Dimensional Aspects of Vision
  • Balance, Proprioception and Neuromuscular Control

To put it simply, Plasticity refers to the ability of the nervous system to change and evolve based on internal and external environment. Changes can occur in peripheral nerves and the spinal cord in relation to injury (often leading to chronic and neuropathic pain). But the brain can be also be assessed, and trained (exercised) to achieve desired change and improvement in function. We used to think the nervous system was made up of wires connecting different parts to one another and that those wires either worked or didn’t. Now we know that we can focus specific stimulation (electrical, magnetic, heat or cold) on areas of the brain and nervous system to increase or decrease activity. And we can train the brain to change (improve) specific functions by practicing neurologically oriented actions and activities related to vision, focus, concentration, balance, reaction, and recognition.

Why are some athletes cool as a cucumber under pressure and others unable to maintain performance when the pressure is on? Because some have mastered the skill of Autonomic Quieting and others haven’t. Under stress, certain chemicals are released that have an effect on heart rate, blood flow to muscles, pupillary function and other physiologic activity. In many cases, that stress response can have a negative affect on control and performance. We see significant differences in free throw shooting in practice vs. games. Golfers sink amazing putts on Thursday but many have dropped off of the leaderboard by Sunday afternoon, when the stakes are highest. Adrenaline and stress can have a significant affect on an athlete’s ability to control muscular function and sequence movement, let alone focus or concentrate on the task at hand. Fortunately, an athlete’s response to stress can be assessed, and training can quiet the autonomic nervous system, allowing improved and relaxed performance that reflect the athlete’s true capabilities. Thermal and EMG-guided biofeedback, Neurofeedback, monitoring of heart rate variability, mindfulness meditation, and other techniques can are ways the brain can be trained to harness control over stress reactions and maximize function under pressure.

Vision is much more than how well you read a chart and whether or not glasses are needed for near or far sightedness. For athletes, the strength of their vision can make or break their performance. Being able to see and react to stimulus in a timely manner is a major component of athletic success. For example, a baseball player pinpointing the exact moment he should swing at the ball. Sports Vision is about training the eyes to become ultra-aware of movements, improving reaction time on the field. There are a few different types of visual skills that all work together to encompass exceptional sports vision:

  • Acuity (Static and Dynamic)
  • Contrast Sensitivity
  • Ability to shift focus
  • Tracking ability: Keep eyes on a moving object
  • Reaction time
  • Depth perception
  • Peripheral vision

Vision testing for the above skills is important to establish a baseline for training. Once the skill level is determined, sports vision specialists and sports neurologists can provide various training strategies to optimize an athlete’s vision skills. There’s also a very interesting potential benefit to vision training related to enhancing and speeding the time needed to get back to “game speed” after a musculoskeletal injury. Sports vision is a rapidly evolving area of sports medicine and performance that is neurologic in nature, can be assessed and trained.

Balance is an essential part of our everyday lives. It allows us the ability to control all of the movements we make and having adequate balance is essential for the activities of daily living. There’s the issue of controlling your body to maintain an upright position and prevent falls during physical activity. But balance also refers to absence of asymmetries. The right and left arm and leg should have balanced strength. The anterior and posterior (front and back) muscles should have balanced strength. Imbalance and abnormalities of functional movements lead to poor performance and increased risk of injury. And then there’s Proprioception. In a nutshell, proprioception is our ability to know where our limbs are and what they are doing, without looking at them. Proprioception is what allows you to control a gas and brake pedal on a car while watching the road in front of you. Because this ability is controlled by the nervous system, it is possible to train your body to improve your proprioception sense. Being able to blindly pinpoint the exact location of your hands and feet, and know the precise direction they are moving gives any athlete an upper hand in performance. It’s easy to understand why this is such a sought after skill among professional and everyday athletes alike. Proprioception and balance are components of Neuromuscular Control, which allows us to perform athletically, move through space and stabilize our extremities and joints for maximal productivity and prevention of injury. Many non-contact injuries to the knees and ankles are a result of poor neuromuscular control. Movement can be analyzed and training can improve neuromuscular control to maximize performance and minimize risk of injury.

As is the case with training the muscles in our bodies, brain training for sports performance is something that is built over time, with consistent commitment and at the hands of trained and skilled experts who can help you achieve your athletic best.