The soccer ball sprints down the field…. right in front of you! You race towards the soccer ball with twenty seconds left in the game… no defenders… the ball is yours! Then… your heart starts pounding out of your chest and your mind is rushing with thoughts… BAM! Your foot slides and just misses the ball. The clock beeps 0 and the game is over.
What happened? Why were you not able to score that winning goal?
This week on the Neuro Bureau we will discuss athletes, what makes their mental strength different from ours and the neuroscience behind professional sports.
First, it is important to understand what separates elite athletes from novice ones. Before understanding mental strength, we first need to comprehend why athletes from a neurological perspective are experts at their sport.
Notably, pro-athletes have better motor control than their novice counterparts. Motor control simply means when the brain signals your muscles or limbs to perform a movement or skill. For example, a green light while driving. You see the green light and respond by hitting the breaks. In the brain, coordination and motor control are mainly controlled by the cerebellum.
The cerebellum is small yet mighty, containing about ten percent of the brain’s total weight and about half of the brain’s neurons! The cerebellum is also split up into two hemispheres – the right and the left. In particular, the cerebellum fine tunes and makes movement accurate. Think about it this way, the cerebellum helps you hit the bullseye rather than just making it onto the target.
So, how does information travel across the cerebellum?
Cerebellum: Hey cerebral hemisphere! I heard from some axons you want to move something… whats the plan? How fast should I direct the muscles to contract? How long? How strong?
Axons: Hey! Let’s make this quick. Some of my axon friends are also telling the muscles this same plan. We are trying to hit a soccer ball. We are going to need the foot and legs to do this…
Cerebellum: That’s for the plan Axons. Any update from the spinal cord on how it is being executed? What’s the position sense? Any corrections needed to make this movement more accurate?
Spinal cord: Yes, we need the kick to be a little bit further to the left or else we will miss the soccer ball.
Cerebellum: Rodger that. I’m going to send that feedback to the motor areas of the cerebrum.
Cerebrum: That’s the information. I am passing it along to the upper motor neurons to make the fix. As per usual, they will send the corrections to the lower motor neurons and then the skeletal muscles who make the fix.
Anyway, that was a dramatic overview of the cerebellum! I hope the actions of the cerebellum makes more sense to you now. :).
So what makes an athletes brain different from ours? They have extremely strong cerebellums (denser white matter). This means an elite tennis player can hit a ball with an immense amount of precision and accuracy. Of course, your brain is like a muscle and pro-athletes have strengthened their cerebellum after years of practice. Of course, there are many reasons why pro-athletes brains are different from ours but what makes them so special is the precision and accuracy they achieved in their respective sport.
Like the cerebellum, the brain can also grow to become more “mentally tough.”
What do I mean by mental toughness? I mean a person’s ability to withstand stressful and scary situations.
When we are stressed or scared, it is our amygdala being activated to warn us of danger. You begin stressing about not playing well or losing sports and game and your amygdala activates in response, assuming there is a danger of playing the game. What I mean by this is your amygdala is saying there could be a dangerous and bad outcome if you lose this game, and then makes you scared to protect you.
So, how do pro-athletes combat the fear-causing amygdala response? They use visualization! Visualisation simply refers to imaging a scenario positively before it happens. This way, the brain is like “we have witnessed this event before and know the outcome. Nothing to be scared of here… let’s move along.”
So, even if we use visualization… why do we still crack under pressure?
The truth is self-conciseness. During practice, we go through the motions habitually. For example, let’s say you are an ice skater. During practice, you have probably practiced your program again and again and again and again. By the 1,500th time, you do not even focus on the movements anymore… you know them so well. However, during the performance or competition you begin noticing every minute detail – how our shoe feels, where you land the jump, how far your leg stretches out. Hyper-focusing on yourself and your movements breaks down your natural mental process and you lose all sense of familiarity.
In the end, we are all human. Some days we perform beautifully and grab that gold. Other days, we break down in fear and fall on the ground. In the end, though, mental toughness is like a sport – it is hard but with time and practice, it can be perfected.