Why it is important to train the brain while training the body.

The goals of the athlete must match that of the coach. Any good coach will ensure that their athletes goals at training are positive and achievable. One of the worst things a coach can do is to set unrealistic expectations for their athletes and demotivate them through either too much work, too little work or not setting a positive environment to train in. I remember as a child the coaches that made an impression on me and the coaches that made me want to quite the sport. Coaches play a significant role in ensuring the brain of an athlete is just as fit and healthy as their body. This is also important for the support system that surrounds young athletes. Bloom, Gardner and Winner (as cited in Shavinina, & Ferrari, 2004) state “An individual’s motivation and desire to commit the necessary time and effort to an activity as well as the support received from family, friends and instructors are essential components in the development of expertise”. At times the support system that surrounds the athlete can hinder performance or cause a decline in motivation.  This can impact the athlete’s state of mind and their performance. Of course as parents and coaches we want our children and athletes to be their best. We don’t bring them to training and put all of that hard work in to come last do we?  Training their bodies is an essential part of competing, but what do we do if our athletes are demotivated, unenthusiastic and negative about their own performance, bodies and overall performance.

Athletes have more than just their opposition to compete with. There are numerous factors than can be psychological difficult to compete with. These include mental and physical fatigue, over training, recovery, injuries, travel, socialisation, nutrition and for some athletes study. Along with this is just ensuring that they are using mental skills to assist them to improve the effectiveness of training and developing skills that can be transferred to competition. This sounds like a lot to deal with. Imagine being only 14 and having all of this weighing on your mind. This is where training the brain becomes an integral part of the training program. Psychological fitness as I like to call it plays an integral role and should be used with all athletes young and old. My daughter is only 9 and I use many techniques with her to ensure she is focused on her goals, staying motivated and enthusiastic and allowing her time to be a young girl, playing with her friends and studying at school. Below are a few techniques I have used or am familiar with to train the brain to stay focused, calm and maximise potential.

Goal setting:

These goals need to be short term and long term and need to be within the understanding of what an athlete is able to physically achieve but also mentally achieve. Their goals should be a mixture of where they are currently and where they want to be in the near and distant future. Often people believe these goals should be set towards competition but I believe they should focus more on process and performance than outcomes at competitions. Performance and process goals are focused on what the athlete needs to achieve to enhance their overall performance and the process required to achieve these results. For example an athlete running a 1500m track event would focus their process and performance onto trying to reduce their lap times and this may be achieved through looking at their running style, increasing the stride length and using their upper body in a more effective manner. These achievable goals place an emphasis on training for short term and long term outcomes and an overall improvement in running rather than focusing on an upcoming race.

Internal/External messages:

“I couldn’t run as fast as that” or “I wouldn’t be able to jump that distance, I’ve never jumped it before”. These are the sorts of internal and external dialogue that can shape your mental state and your confidence to achieve. Often young athletes say simple things stating that they are unable to achieve a certain outcome. These simple comments are basically talking yourself out of being able to achieve goals. It’s important to recognise the words we speak as athletes and to recognise how these simple sentences can have an effect on our state of mind. Turn the tables and make the comments more positive rather than negative. Focus more on the outcomes and processes that are achievable and don’t drag the negative feelings and emotions with you into training or an event.

Imagery/Visualisation:

Visualisation and imagery are tools that are used by athletes to create a mental image of what it is they want to achieve. For example an athlete racing 100m hurdles visualises themselves on the start line, taking off and leaping their legs over each hurdle. They envision their time, the time they want to beat and the intended outcome. It is as though they can feel themselves in real time actually completing the event. It’s allowing the athlete to imagine how they want to perform the intricate details of the activity and how they feel when they perform it.With this type of training an athlete can actually perform the skill they have mentally rehearsed. This type of brain training is a great way to build confidence, experience and a sense of calm when having to compete under pressure. I asked my 11 year old daughter, a three time state champion race walker, whether she ever envisions her outcomes, race plan or technique during competition phases and her responses was “Of course I imagine myself crossing the line first. I don’t want to imagine or visualise myself losing”! I probably should have expected that answer. However, on deeper discussion she informed me that she does think about how she is going to compete, she imagines herself walking and the technique that she has trained with as well as how she is going to keep her nerves in check. So, even without realising it, children do visualise, imagine, whatever you want to call it about their performance. It can be in the smallest way, at the youngest age but it is a start to understanding how this technique can influence the mind and train it to think in a positive way. Visualisation and imagery can work in so many ways and on a much larger scale for elite athletes. There have been studies that have shown that by visualising doing biceps curls athletes have actually increased their bicep size (Bailey, 2014). Visualisation is not going to make you run faster than Usain Bolt or jump hurdles like Sally Pearson but it does go a long way to gaining those marginal advantages.

Meditation:

Meditation is combined with visualisation and imagery except here I am discussing it as a tool to relax the mind and teach it to calm nerves before an event. It gives the mind time to have clarity and relax. Another interesting aspect to meditation is the beneficial effects it has on sleep. We all know that sleep plays a major role in the recovery of an athlete’s body, assists the immune system to stay strong and fights off negative effects such as weight gain, depression and the inability to concentrate. The right amount of sleep, which is aided through meditation, contributes to the ability to stay calm and have a peaceful mind leading up to a major event. Meditation is a wonderful tool for those athletes who need to train their brain to switch off, relax and stay calm. It also adds to the visualisation that I discussed previously. Meditation includes visualising the process and performance goals that I spoke of earlier and are used at the end of the mediation process to focus on what it is an athlete is trying to achieve.

It’s not an easy thing to switch the mind off and think of nothing but the more it is done the easier it becomes and the longer the meditation can be sustained. I decide to try out this theory before I wrote about it. I’ve spent the last four weeks meditating three times a week. I started with trying to focus my mind to concentrate for a short amount of time, approximately 3-5 minutes.  I found this difficult at first as I had to block out the outside noises and try to think about nothing. I started by using meditation music but then found it to be distracting so I ended up just clearing as much noise as possible. As I went through the first week I didn’t really feel much difference. My concentration was the same, the time I could sustain the meditation didn’t change and I didn’t really think it was all that effective with the visualisation process. However, over the next two weeks I started to feel a noticeable difference in the time that I could sustain the meditation. I was meditating for up to 12 minutes and my mind was completely fixated on nothing. I was starting to feel the calm mind that I wanted to experience and my sleep was becoming uninterrupted and restful, as it should be. By the end of week four I was meditating for 15 minutes and feeling a sense of peace, calm mind and my visualisations had started to become a reality. Now, I wasn’t visualising winning a gold medal in the featherweight boxing but I was visualising being able to run injury free. I am pleased to announce that I have been running for the past two weeks without any pain in my knee. Is this a mind over matter scenario? Some would say yes but I’m going to stick with the meditation and visualisation theory and continue to build on the foundations that I have built over the last four weeks and continue to meditate my way to better health. It’s certainly worth a try and there is never an athlete too young or old, in any type of sport that can’t give it a try.

There is a plethora of information out there about mindfulness and and mental training and the effects on athletic performance and there is certainly so much of the brain’s function that medical experts are not even aware of yet. What I do know is that these simple practices can be an effective way to train the brain to cope with the stress of competition, connect with the present moment and build a strong mind.

 

 


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