It may come as a surprise, but mistakes, turnovers, penalties and missed shots rarely result from poor strength and conditioning. Rather, these unfortunate circumstances happen because of a deficiency in sensory systems (eyes, touch, hearing) that deliver a strong signal of important information to various brain regions. These are the same regions where memory activates neural assemblies that connect with other brain regions to elicit a correct action or reaction.
For athletic performance coaches to truly address the whole athlete, these problematic circumstances can and should be addressed as passionately as physical strength and conditioning programs. It’s important for collegiate athletic programs to develop a brain strength and conditioning program to improve sensory information processing and establish a strong mind and memory. It enables neuromuscular communication (muscle memory) that produces actions and reactions free of mistakes and at lightning speed.
Learning And Motivation
Every sport is subject to tasks (plays, sets, putts, drives, shots). Each task is different in each sport, and certain situations require different solutions. However, the sensory and motor systems governing these tasks work in the same manner, regardless of task type.Learning is the key process for acquiring new or modifying existing experiences to create unique skills and tendencies for a specific sport. Motivation is the most important component for learning. Two characteristics for motivation exist. There is the fear of failing and there is decisive success (toughness).
When combined, fear of failure and toughness can even enhance one’s ability to learn. Fear is necessary to recognize situations that demand maximum attention, enabling emotion to create decisive success. The result creates solutions to uneasy situations. So, learning for sports should include both types of emotion. Learning is the result of coaching, repetition and feedback (correcting errors).
Learning for sports not only requires explanation – such as drawing up the assignment – but most importantly, it requires that proper physical movements be performed. The more brain regions used to learn a task, the stronger and longer-lasting the memory. Memory allows us to acquire, store and retrieve learned information. Attention is aided by our senses, guided by vision, allowing one to locate and maintain conscious effort. This is a key ingredient for learning and recalling what was learned.
Memory is key to everything we do. An athlete’s memory is always working to produce solutions to problems when accomplishing a task. Neurobiologists have identified two classes of long-term memory:
- Declarative, or conscious recollection of information.
- Non-declarative, or subconscious recollection of information.
Declarative memory is also broken down into two categories:
- Episodic, which involves personal experiences.
- Semantic, which stores facts.
Non-declarative memory has the natural ability to recall events and information without conscious effort. It is also divided into two classes, procedural and priming. Procedural memory involves a stimulus and response. This class is instinctive; we are essentially born with this ability, but not to the extent an athlete demands. For example, walking down a crowded hallway and avoiding collisions is not as demanding as a wide receiver avoiding collisions during game play. A receiver making a pass reception, then turning up field and being faced with a group of tacklers, demands yet more skill.
Learning takes place with experience and repetition. Over time, the wide receiver learns new ways to avoid tacklers that will be forever etched in his mind. This non-declarative memory takes place in parts of the brain involved in movement activities and are stored in the brain structure called the putamen, caudate nucleus and the cerebellum, which is essential for timing and coordination. It is often referred to as muscle memory.
Training Athletic Memory
Prime memory deals with stimulus and response. This class of memory is nature’s way of consolidating learned memory.
The brain has limited capacity and is unable to store the literal billions of stimuli captured by our senses in every moment of our lives. Instead, the brain uses simulated non-contextual targets – or stimuli – that can represent many real stimuli and be coded to represent an action or reaction necessary to complete a task. This assembly will remain in the mind permanently.
For example, a running back can practice avoiding collisions, practicing various movements to improve quickness and first-step reaction movements. Because of prime memory, he does not actually require real opponents or a football field to provide the stimulus needed to improve his performance. He can achieve the same effect using lights or non-contextual figures appearing randomly in different locations. This association between non-contextual stimuli and the real response takes place automatically in a real-time setting. The mind draws similarities between the different stimuli and the required response. Repeated activity (or “reps”) generate a perceptual experience along distinct neuronal pathways, thus providing storage of the experience.
Today’s strength and conditioning activities certainly improve an athlete’s ability to sustain the demands of his or her sport, but physical training only addresses a fraction of full athletic performance.
Outstanding performance in sports requires properly-timed reactions to various situations. Think of them as physical solutions to physical problems. It does not matter how fast, strong, agile or overpowering the athlete if he continually commits errors. Training the mind to act and react to adverse provocations – through learning and experience – are necessary to consistently and correctly execute movements, on time and free of mistakes, turnovers or penalties.
Improved human performance training eliminates errors and improves consistency. Athletic performance coaches must train to improve the mind to acquire, store and retrieve learned information from the memory by integrating neurosensory and neuromuscular pathways in synchronization with the muscular skeletal system. Put simply, training the brain sharpens mental solutions to physical problems, thus completing the formula for athletic performance optimization.
This article was written by Dr. Bob Orsillo, O.D., who provides sports vision services in Tallahassee, Fla., is the optometric physician for all Florida State University athletic programs, and is a Fellow of the American Academy of Optometry (FAAO). He volunteers as a clinical coordinator in the Opening Eyes Program with the Florida State Special Olympics. He is also the founder of ProVectra, a training program that combines measures of visual transit speed and information capacity with state-of-the-art motion-tracking and data capture. More information is available at Pro-Vectra.com.
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