The Brain in Sport – The Elite Advantage?
At the highest levels of modern day sport, an athlete’s mental ability and function are increasingly being used as an indicator of advanced competitive potential and a predictor of overall performance.
Advances in sports psychology and neuro science indicate that elite athletes exhibit significant differences in mental performance in comparison to the sub-elite.
During high pressure competition, an athlete’s mental processing abilities and focus are often overwhelmed. The resulting mental fatigue leads to a loss of ‘in game’ focus and flawed decision making. Momentary lapses of attention will result in critical errors.
The capability of elite athletes to remain calm, focused and to sustain a high level of alertness during intense competition is of paramount importance., scientific study is increasingly demonstrating that this ability is the difference between the world’s best and the chasing pack.
To illustrate this point, we will look at three sports and examine how the brains of the greatest athletes in the world work in order to give them a competitive advantage.
Tennis: Roger Federer
A tennis ball leaves the server’s racket at speeds in excess of 120 mph, the brain of the player at the other end of the court (in this case Roger Federer) must be primed to instantly assimilate information and produce a reaction.
Photodetectors in the eye begin to process light hitting the retina, this electrical current moves along the cranial nerve, eventually making its way into the visual cortex in the brain. For most players, the point has been lost, well before they are able to react, not Federer.
Not only is Federer’s brain able to accurately perceive and track the ball coming towards him, but he is able to rapidly assess its speed, flight path and trajectory, allowing it to fire a signal down his spinal cord and into the various muscle groups of his body, which provide a reaction i.e. to return the shot. Federer’s ability to take in details of the world around him i.e movement of the ball, his positioning on court, his opponent’s movements, is crucial.
It is theorised that Federer’s brain is far more adept at reading visual clues than that of his opponents, so that before the ball has left his opponent’s racket, he knows where their shot will go. Federer is able to react faster on the court than his opponents. While Federer has never been the quickest player around the court, he is certainly in the running to have the fastest ‘on court’ brain.
Football: Lionel Messi
Physically Leo Messi is unremarkable, at 1.7 meters the Argentinian is sleight in build and would certainly not challenge for the title of best physique in football. While fast, he is not the fastest and although fit, GPS data demonstrates he is a long way from covering the match day distances of other elite players. However Messi is considered by many as one of the greatest players to have played the game.
There are moments in most matches where Messi appears to have the ball on a string. He seems to have significantly more time on the ball than the players around him and is able to react noticeably faster and with a greater degree of accuracy than his opponents.
There is a growing body of evidence suggesting that what separates Messi and other athletes heralded as the greatest in their respective sports from the rest, is in fact what’s happening inside their head.
In a 2016 article titled “Can Lionel Messi's brain slow down time?” Professors Leslie Samuel Smith and Sajad Jafari conclude it is possible that opponents do not have enough time to combat Messi; because in Messi’s neural system, time moves more slowly . The paper asserts that Messi is likely has more advanced motor skills than his opponents, freeing up more cognitive (brain) capacity. Essentially Messi has more time to think, perceive and act, than those around him.
Formula One: Lewis Hamilton
The previous sections of this blog have discussed the importance of speed of thought and reaction, nowhere is this more critical than Formula One. However in this section, we are highlighting Lewis’s ability to remain calm and focused, despite his heart rate potentially hitting 180bpm during the race. It is often said that the best athletes in the world are able to remain present in the moment, achieving a calm flow state.
Much of Hamilton’s training emphasises the importance of staying calm and analytical in the highly pressurised environment of a Formula One race.
In an interview with The Guardian newspaper, Dr Kerry Spackman (who has worked closely with Hamilton to optimise his mental processing abilities) observed that Hamilton demonstrates a phenomenal level of alertness and tranquillity in the midst of what most drivers experience as uncontrolled mayhem, and that it is the result of “learning” to be calm.
Spackman suggests that Hamilton needs to “be like a chess grandmaster, playing three steps ahead, nice and relaxed, in a state of calm, focused attention”. The logic is simple, the athlete that is able to retain his composure during the heat of elite competition, can more efficiently and effectively implement his strategy.
How can we sharpen our focus, sustain concentration, shrug off the pain of mistakes and get ourselves into that “zone & flow state” that the greats often reference?
It is often suggested that 10,000 hours of practice is required to turn the average competitor into someone that can compete at a professional level; however this statistic is being increasingly challenged and the consensus is that the mental processing abilities of the elite athlete are more refined and optimised than the rest of the general population and even those with which they directly compete.
Elite athletes appear to be more alert, have a quicker speed of thought and corresponding reaction time and exhibit the ability to think calmly and accurately when under extreme pressure conditions.
We are all familiar with the idea that our brains are wired like computers, however it seems reasonable to extend this simile to suggest that in order to compete at the elite levels, the brains of the greatest athletes in the world are increasingly starting to resemble super computers.
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