Saturday, February 13, 2010

Why the key to becoming a successful athlete is using less, not more, of your brain

This is interesting, and counter-intuitive unless you are athlete and have had the experience of flow.

A great sporting achievement

Why the key to becoming a successful athlete is using less, not more, of your brain

Expert golfers are focused in their pre-shot routine. In tests  there was very little brain activity, except in the supplementary motor  region

Expert golfers are focused in their pre-shot routine.
In tests there was very little brain activity,
except in the supplementary motor region

Image :1 of 2

It is with little pleasure that we report here that the best brains in sport may be the simplest. Or that when we refer to the “geniuses” of playing fields across the world we are, in fact, referring to athletes whose use of grey matter is very limited. Or that sporting intelligence as a concept is pretty much oxymoronic.

In a laboratory at Royal Holloway University of London, 30 hockey players are queueing up to have their brains scanned. Doing the scanning is Zöe Wimshurst, a former junior hockey international who now doubles up as the British Olympic Association’s visual performance coach and as a sports scientist at the University of Surrey, for whom the holy grail is to uncover the workings of the sporting brain.

Why, for instance, did Paul Gascoigne seem such a “clever” football player? How does Roger Federer’s brain operate when he is on court? And how different is the neurological activity in his brain when he is playing tennis to that in mine or yours?

In search of the answers, Wimshurst has been, rather like something from an episode of House, wheeling hockey players into a scanner to measure their cranial activity using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). Once inside the scanner, they are shown a series of clips of hockey players in the process of making shots. It is the job of Wimshurst’s volunteers, using a hand-held device, to signal whether they think the ball will go left or right.

With the help of Michael Wright, a sports scientist from Brunel University, Wimshurst is in the process of scanning 30 players — ten at expert level, ten of intermediate standard and ten novices. The project is not yet complete but she can see where it is going. “Generally, 80 per cent of the information people receive is through our eyes. In sport that is probably over 90 per cent. A quarterback in American football might be able to see three places on the pitch in a split second; a good quarterback might be able to see seven.” The next test of that quarterback is how the visual information he picks up is processed: how quickly the information travels from the eyes to the brain, how the brain responds (the decision it takes) and how successfully that decision is communicated to the musculoskeletal system.

As expected, Wimshurst’s results show that the expert players are more successful in anticipating the direction of shots. A more interesting result, though, is that rather than using more of their brains to make the right decisions the experts are, in fact, using less.

A similar study of golfers was carried out by John Milton and colleagues at the University of Chicago in 2006. Again, a number of novices underwent fMRI scans and their results were compared with those of low-handicappers, ie, good players. Inside the scanner, the golfers were shown a number of pictures of golf scenarios and told to prepare mentally to play a shot.

When studying the brain in this way, scientists like to carve it up into imaginary cubes, called voxels. The Chicago study found that for the low-handicappers barely any voxels were lighting up, in line with Wimshurst’s findings. The novices, by contrast, had “difficulty filtering out irrelevant information” and seemed to have lights on all over the brain.

In layman’s terms, this could be called “focus”. Or, to put it another way, in preparing for a golf shot or thinking where a hockey ball will go, the novice is looking in different places, uncertain as to how to execute the task, nervous about getting it wrong, concerned about what other people might think of them and maybe even thinking about what’s on TV that night. The expert is, comparatively and literally, single-minded.

This evidence is further supported by analysis of exactly which voxels lit up during the golf study. For the novice golfers, there was considerable activity in the limbic region of the brain, while for the experts there was none. The limbic system deals with emotions; expert athletes are unemotional when plying their trade. Likewise, Wimshurst’s study is showing that in the expert hockey players the frontal lobe is active. This part of the brain is involved with higher mental functions such as choosing between options and recognising consequences. In the novice players this is hardly active at all.

Transfer this knowledge to the World Cup final between France and Italy in 2006. The French player Zinédine Zidane was playing well and would have been using little of his brain for most of the match. Suddenly, though, he had Marco Materazzi verbally taunting him and he transformed from icy cool professional to emotional novice. He headbutted Materazzi and was sent off.

Zidane may also have experienced a surge in the speed of his neurological activity. That’s according to the work of Henry Hopking, who runs the Brain Training Company. He is interested in brain waves — not flashes of inspiration, but electrical activity in the neurons of the brain. Hopking says that he can train people to regulate the pace of their brain-wave activity. Too high a frequency, he says, introduces stress and leads to underperformance. Hopking has worked with several world champions in different sports, the first being Ben Brunton, a British clay target shooter, who won the world title in 1999. Hopking helped Brunton to train his brain to around 12 brain waves per second, a necessary level of calm for his sport.

Different sports require different brain-wave activity. Sports such as football and rugby require a higher frequency of brain waves, 15-25 per second, known as low-beta waves, compared with shooting and golf, which require high alpha, at 12-15 per second.

“Within rugby and football, there are penalty moments,” Hopking adds, meaning moments in which a player needs to go from low beta to high alpha brain-wave activity. This is what footballers should be doing when they go into a penalty shoot-out, switching off from the fast pace of the game to concentrate on the specific task ahead. “Taking penalties,” Hopking says, “is exactly the kind of area where I can help.” It is also the area in which Jonny Wilkinson excels on a rugby field, as he explains below.

So shouldn’t we all be doing drills to tame our brain waves or flocking to meditation classes? Mainstream neuroscience remains unconvinced. According to Martin Edwards, of the School of Sport and Exercise Sciences at the University of Birmingham, it’s “a bit of a leap” to say that brain-wave patterns affect performance, as the relationship between sporting prowess and electrical activity in the brain is not properly understood. However, he does echo the results of the Chicago brain-scan studies: areas of the brain that process visual information are likely to be activated when a player is distracted, he says, whereas experts show greater activation in the motor regions.

It seems then that focus really is the difference between winners and losers.

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