Professor David Sackett, one of the founding fathers of evidence-based medicine, once said, "50% of what you learn in medical school will turn out to be outdated or proven dead wrong within 5 years of students graduation". The same can be said for our knowledge of the Brain and its application in Sport.
Can we even begin to imagine where sports science will take us in the next 50 years? Recently we have seen the introduction of mindfulness and data science into sports. But, here is the crux of it, imagine a sports team in the 1970s that knew today's sports science. What kind of competitive advantage would that have given. We recently learned Manchester United had no sport psychologist since 2001, which speaks volumes to their downfall since the aura of Alex Ferguson has retired.
For decades, the prevailing viewpoint in neuroscience was that the adult human brain is essentially unchangeable, hardwired, fixed in form and function so that by the time we reach adulthood, we are pretty much stuck with what we have. However, this is not true and is a complete game-changer in how we look at the function of the Brain and its impact on our lives.
The term for this is Neuroplasticity, and it has been around a long time but only really gained traction and correct understanding of its potential in the last decade. However, an even smaller group knows how to effectively influence it to achieve the results people are desperately searching for.
In essence, Neuroplasticity means the Brain can change its physiology depending on the direction of your thoughts at a particular time. In other words, you can influence your physiology by directing your thoughts and feelings that you are either unconsciously or consciously choosing. As a result, you are creating new neural pathways all the time or strengthening existing neural pathways. In addition, a growing number of scientific studies show evidence that thoughts and feelings create your reality to a large degree.
If you think of this in a sporting context, it has infinite possibilities. Sporting cultures with great Owners, GMs, Managers, and Coaches, all their decisions from player acquisitions, coaching sessions, analysis, fitness, and gameplans are going to be, for the most part, elite across the board and maybe only a grain of sand to separate them in terms of influence across the white line. So, where do teams get that edge today? The starting point is being open-minded and knowing every decision begins in the depths of the Brain.
Dr. Joe Dispenza D.C. says, "if you can imagine a future event in your life based on any one of your desires, that reality exists as a possibility in the quantum field, waiting to be observed by you.""Are we masters of our destiny?"
Novak Djokovic said once, "You get the things that you produce in your thoughts. Life just works that way.". Novak is unquestionably the greatest tennis player of all time under pressure, supported by the fact that he's won most of his grand slams with most of the crowd against him. I always found that quite extraordinary that playing Federer or Nadal is difficult enough he mostly finds a way to win in those conditions. He always stayed at the right emotional level under pressure. His Neuroplasticity is programmed one-way, total domination and winning the battle of willpower in the high-pressure moments. What sets him apart is his openness to alternative methods of peak performance. He talks openly about the power of the mind, spirituality, and grounding techniques. He knows the secrets of Neuroplasticity that give him a competitive advantage.
In effect, your thoughts are more important than you think, but they are not you. They are an image of your past programming or an imagined future, so your imagination plays a part. Worrying the night before a match is a misuse of imagination. A successful skier will not just focus on the trees but on the pathway between them. Just like that a quarterback that only see's the defense won't see the wide-open receivers. Who is more successful, the person who primarily sees the obstacles or the one who sees the pathway through them?
In a clinical setting, people who suffer from addictions or chronic mental health issues get stuck in a seemingly never-ending cycle. For example, a person with depression will mostly think negative thoughts 24/7, see only the negative and how not to achieve your dreams or a way out of the negative cycle.
"Make sure your worst enemy doesn't live between your ears," Laird Hamilton
The Brain will adapt its physiology to make it easier for these neurons to wire together, making the signal stronger. Why does the Brain do this? Simply because the Brain is like a neutral muscle in the most ruthless way and because you think a thought more than others, the Brain registers this as more valuable and thinks you want to recall it more often. Hence, it creates a superhighway of negative neurons to make it easier to experience. This is why a bad run of results or a goal drought can seem never-ending. Bad habits are hard to break because of the function of Neuroplasticity within the confines of the Brain.
"Neuroplasticity never sleeps."
Why do so many teams miss the opportunity to change their fate? Unfortunately, and this is true of many sports teams and clients I have worked with, their ego's unique tolerance of suffering delays the drive to change. They go to the edge of the cliff metaphorically, and then I get the call. It seems to be human nature. At some point, they realize that whatever their past, they can keep creating the same old or choose to change. It is much quicker and easier to sustain positive neurology rather than be reactive and learn and develop new neuropathways from a negative place because there is a familiarity and comfort zone in the pain. It is known so will be more seductive initially. That's why successful teams should look to enhance and maximize periods of good form or sustain positive neurology because change can be temporary. You already have the rich personal memory bank of experience from which to acquire from. Those neurons are easier accessed the more recent they existed.
Neuroplasticity reveals itself in your behavior and how you act. Consequently, your Body language reveals a great deal about your inner state and collective culture. The opposition player will either gain belief or doubt knowing what you feel as your body language will show them even if it's not conscious. It's an Inner knowing we all have. The crowd can sense this too and can become subdued.
When you concede a score, do you hang your head, or can you stand tall with your chest out? If you are doubting or tired, do you show it? How would you react to any setback if you truly knew you would win the game anyway? Can you stay conscious in moments of pressure so you don't show any subconscious weaknesses to the opposition or your fans? Of course, this applies to upper management just as much it does to the players.
"If you can't outplay them, out-think them."
To change a toxic sporting culture is to be greater than your present circumstances, grander than the environment. This is the ultimate because it's causing an effect on the collective. Gandhi is the most remarkable example of this outside of Sport. All the giants of history holding on to a dream that most called crazy showed that aligning their thoughts, feelings and acting like it is inevitable with an unwavering knowing that their environment will bend to their intention eventually. Great managers and coaches exude this quality. Do you see how there is no room for fear or doubt here, only certainty? Imagine the quality of your decision-making from this programming? Do you think it gets you quicker to your goal or not? Can managers hold steady while others around them are losing their heads?
Neuroplasticity goes further; a well-known study from Harvard medical school showed those who physically learned how to play a five-finger piano exercise and a group who just mentally rehearsed found when tested while scanning the Brain, that the same parts of the Brain lit up. What this means is mentally rehearsing creates the same neurons as physical practice. Now I am not saying this is a process to replace physical learning, but would you have contemplated that the Brain treats the mental rehearsal the same as the physical. This concludes that the Brain doesn't know the difference between real or imagined experiences.
"Your Neural Pathways direct your life."
Players who care too much tend to underperform in the big moments like the Toronto Maple leaf's in the playoffs because they cannot process the strength of feeling in those moments. The more you care, the more you will feel the pressure because you are more emotionally attached to the outcome.
"Everyone has an inbuilt self-fulfilling prophecy to direct your failure or success."
There is an unconscious cauldron of pressure created here, driven by the fear of past failures. To a certain extent, you will have players driven by that, but it's not sustainable, and some will crumble in it. It is interesting that quite a few of Maple leaf's acquisitions are originally from Toronto or have some affinity with the city. The emotional scales can become unbalanced the more you care, especially in a player who has not been trained to process their emotions. My sense was watching the all or nothing documentary that there was a negative bias derived from over sensitization of the nervous system caused by the pressure and past traumatic defeats. This is why the Maple Leafs have recently failed every year to win in the playoffs. They can do everything right in coaching, tactics, work rate, nutrition, and physicality but, if the Brain is not built for the playoffs, you will repeat the same pattern. It doesn't mean it's your forever as they have the physical ability to succeed, but to lose 6 years in a row in the 1st round of the playoffs in itself will have created negative Neuroplasticity, and it is hardwired. It's not even a limiting belief phenomenon at this stage.
When the Maple Leafs went 3-1 up in the series against Montreal in 2021, their collective belief would have been substantial to get to that point but having that lead creates pressure from an expectation that needs to be processed. The pressure was switched off for Montreal as it looked like an unwinnable position. For Toronto, the tension peaked unprocessed, and this creates an overload of adrenalin, cortisol, and nervousness, which depletes you physically of vital energy. This is why teams can play flat sometimes, and the coach cannot figure out why. Unlearn your current habit of sensitizing the nervous system and create the space to allow the feelings to exist. Self-processing is the key to having your energy at full capacity. A little bit of nerves is good, but only in a balanced nervous system where you play from the correct emotional level. Players are always trying to convince me this is not the case as there is pride in handling pressure, but body language never lies, and your opponents can smell it a mile away.
"A losing neuropathway can be unlearned and a winning neuropathway cultivated."
The Brain records the previous years' experience and searches for neural patterns that agree with the self-doubt and nervousness, resulting in reliving the same experience. The Brain gathers all this information chemically and electrically, and the result is already determined. Most players are unaware of doing this, but it directs their failure. Better instruction to the Brain would set this up differently. It's the same Neuroplasticity of why lottery winners mostly end up broke. They get the abundance but are not hardwired to sustain it, and just like getting a 3-1 series lead, they can't hold on to it. The fear of losing it sets in.
The success is temporary when you react incorrectly, which puts you into a negative feedback loop. The Brain is designed to get input, record it, store it, and with enough repetition, rewire in a new neural pathway, and as you go about your business, you will act on that pathway as though it were true, just like the Maple Leaf's. This needs to be faced, not avoided.
Vancouver Canucks, in their next Stanley cup final, will have to face a similar foe if they are to win for the 1st time because if the programming hasn't been done, all the media questions about the previous heartaches will get into the players wiring and the result will be pre-determined. The negativity is already programmed into the fanbase. However, it can be avoided by implementing proper brain training. One has to give yourself the best chance and avoid the self-sabotage by pre-programming the big moments to come because even with the Canucks talent, it won't be enough to override the past conditioning. The same goes for the Maple Leaf's as opportunities will present themselves to test the learning."Change the story."
Defeats are like traumas that no one is immune to, notably the higher the stakes. Recently, one extreme example was Roma's defeat of Barcelona after being 4-1 down in the 1st leg in the Champions league in 2018, which was a precursor to Barcelona repeating the year after at Anfield against Liverpool. Let's look a bit closer because the power of negative Neuroplasticity is undeniable here and doesn't require significant scientific research to prove."New Neural connections are created by repetition, repetition, and more repetition."
In the lead-up to the game, you could see the trauma of the previous year in the player's body language on the Netflix documentary Matchday: Inside F.C. Barcelona. The players kept overcompensating their communication about Roma the previous year, constantly reminding themselves not to let it happen again. Constant reminding of the trauma. Did anyone need reminding? Did they address and process the trauma? No. Did they focus on what they want rather than what they don't want? Anfield can be intimidating on European nights. Liverpool is likely to overperform due to the positive tradition and results experienced over the last 50 years. You see that in itself creates positive neurons that form strong beliefs.
Remember Liverpool in that game were also without their star player Mo Salah. Barcelona carried a 3-0 lead in that game, just like the 4-1 lead against Roma the previous season. It takes a strong mind to withstand that level of intimidation at Anfield. Barcelona was only down 1-0 at halftime and going through, but the body language was desperate in the changing room. Players were over-emotional, which is a classic symptom of an over-sensitization of the nervous system due to negative Neuroplasticity. The previous year's trauma came to the surface because it was never processed correctly. This was so much so that Jordi Alba was in tears at halftime. Those were the tears of defeat and made no sense given Barcelona were 2 goals up overall. The management should have taken him off at that point but were themselves lost in the night's emotion and pressure. With the primal part of the Brain overactive, your capacity to make conscious decisions is drastically weakened. It will override the system, and you will be in fight or flight mode or lesser-known freeze. This is never a good place to be in a sporting context. We all know what happened 2nd half. Barcelona lost 4-0, giving away a 3-0 lead from the first leg. Do you think it was a coincidence that Barcelona somehow manifested almost the same scenario with the same outcome as the previous year?"If you don't have confidence, you'll always find a way not to win" Carl Lewis
One of the most surprising teachings I have come to believe as I dived deeper into the world of Neuroplasticity is that for me, luck doesn't exist and definitely not to the extent most people think. What if your positive thoughts lead to positive feelings that somehow shape your reality, as Novak Djokovic has realized. Did Barcelona, with their negative mindset deriving from a damaging trauma, not create a negative frequency within that produced the same life situation to be tested on again. Was that bad luck or self-fulfilled?
Was the lesson learned from the first trauma? Were the players taught how to process the emotion of the trauma and release it so it no longer lingered around them or in their bodies? The same goes for the Maple Leaf’s and any team repeating the same patterns. Many trauma recovery institutes believe traumas are energy trapped in the body until appropriately experienced and processed. When you are anxious, you think that worrying will help you to be prepared for the worst-case scenario, but this is unproductive. When you are sensitized, you have negative bias neuroplasticity, which is evident in how Barcelona prepared for this game. You then get caught looking for everything wrong. It doesn't care about what is right or your strengths. However, this won't help you and will keep the Anxiety alive. The trouble with unprocessed trauma is, you don't respond to the moment, you react to the past, and you are an already pre-determined victim of your past."What future will you write today."
Did Barcelona get the things they produced in thought before Liverpool? Remember every thought counts. But even more than that, the feelings you generate and process count even more. Elite sports stars have inbuilt many of the ingredients towards the recipe for success, or they would not have progressed to where they are. Still, it can affect everyone differently when the pressure comes, and as the stakes are higher, it will expose any weakness. You may only get one shot at a title. So why not take it when you're there. Why wait to experience the success you crave. Seize the moment. You don’t need to lose in order to learn.
It all comes back to generating a feeling of trust and confidence in yourself impervious to the pressure."The opposite of Anxiety is Trust, not Peace."
Anxiety, in basic terms, is fear of a feeling that people are instinctively running from, especially in the big moments. So, for example, before a big match, the adrenalin and cortisol will be coursing through the players' veins, some won't sleep, some will be vomiting or on the toilet before, and some think they need this to perform. Still, it depletes you of much-needed energy and can result in a flat performance.
An overlooked anxiety performance response is the freeze reaction. Inexperienced Quarterbacks tend to freeze in the pocket if their options are limited after the defense wipes out the 1st play call. This is evident through body language showing hesitation and delaying the decision-making process until it is too late. You won't get your feet in the correct position. It's all about subconsciously processing the moment's emotion instantly, so the Amygdala doesn't release the overload of adrenalin and cortisol. Once the release starts, it is already too late. Look at the quality of decisions quarterbacks make when this happens for evidence of negative Neuroplasticity. The negative neurons are already developed. They need to retrain the Brain to unlearn this reaction and respond correctly to the pressures of the moment. Additionally, the unconscious fear of injury will continue to create a reality where they are at higher risk, adding fuel to the Anxiety of the moment. This is why players become injury prone as the neurons are prewired together."Your success or failure does not reside within your genes; it resides within your programming."
To see the best example of unprocessed Anxiety in sports in recent times, watch the England National team taking penalties in the Euro 2020 final. The players' body language showed evidence of over-sensitized nervous systems. The missed penalties lacked accuracy and conviction Without a doubt, the most prominent externalized example seen recently that showed the lack of neuroplasticity work done for players to cope with the moment.
The Amygdala is the part of your Brain that releases the stress hormone adrenalin and cortisol, and it doesn't assess a threat based on what is happening around you. This is why people can have panic attacks while watching tv. It translates it through your emotions and how you react to how you feel. So, when you create the habit of worrying all the time, feeling less than, being scared of failure or disappointment, or even fearing success, and so on, your Brain will translate that as danger. So, you need to show your Brain that you are fine and not engage and not follow unproductive thinking with your awareness. Easier said than done, but so many players don't even know what to do in the first place. It is not something widely taught.
The starting point is knowing the mechanics of the nervousness and having a good attitude to stress and pressure, which creates positive Neuroplasticity.
Process the emotions, do not run from them. The untrained first instinct will be to run initially because it's uncomfortable if the feeling is negative."Getting comfortable in the uncomfortable is the key to your success."
It doesn't matter where your team is in the hierarchy of your sporting pyramid, all that matters now is the moment in front of you. Are you pre-determining your success or pre-determining your failure? Know that you are doing one or the other in every moment. There is no grey area within the Brain.
Are you applying the positive Neuroplasticity of your values to create a successful culture?
You can do so much right and still fall short. It doesn't matter your past conditioning, the mechanics of the Brain are the same for everyone.
It is easy to process emotions in times of low pressure, but as most of us know, stressed-out brains make bad decisions. Still, the good news is that anybody can be taught to process emotions in high-pressure moments. The answer to why you didn't perform today always resides within the mechanics of Neuroplasticity in the Brain. Positive Focus, Energy, Commitment, Execution, Concentration are consequences of harnessing positive Neuroplasticity."Risk something or forever sit with your dreams," Herb Brooks.
Whether it's processing emotions correctly, desensitizing the nervous system through the Amygdala as a consequence, the success of your sporting culture depends on your understanding and engagement of Neuroplasticity and creating neurons of success, so your coaches/players are prepared for the clutch moments. Why leave it to chance when you can directly influence your Neuroplasticity and how the Amygdala works therefore influencing your success at the deepest level. Open the door to your destiny. What culture-fulfilling prophecy do you want to write today? Start afresh from this moment and align the intention of your collective thoughts and feelings towards your community of purpose accompanied with your passionate, emotional engagement, and I promise you will accomplish wonders."It's where you want to go-not where you have been-that matters the most" Shad Helmstetter, PH. D Author Ronan Currid. Master in Neuro-Linguistic Programming, Master in Ericksonian Clinical Hypnotherapy & Master in Usui Reiki. Originally from Ireland, Ronan is a Vancouver-based therapist who overcame Anxiety, Panic Attacks, and Chronic Fatigue and now specializes in helping clients and sports teams reach peak performance in their various fields. (c). [email protected] Scientific studies supporting this essay 1. Both mental imagery and actions are products of the same motor program. Harvard study Alvaro Pascual -Leone – piano five-note exercise 5 people played the piano and 5 learned it and played in their mind. After 5 days, both groups' brains were scanned, and their brains were changed in the same regions identically 2. The self-aware universe Quantum Theory Amit Goswami Ph.D. (reality does not exist in the absence of observation) 3. A Changing magnetic field induces an electric current around it. Michael Faraday 4. Our thoughts can change the material structure of our brains. Thomas Hobbes. Alexander Bain. Sigmund Freud. Santiago Ramon y Cajal. 5. Journal of Comparative Neurology, M.C. Diamond, B Lindner, and A. Raymond. Trained neurons increase in size. 6. Increase the number of connections per Neuron A.M Turner and W.T. Greenough. Brain Research 7. Learning how to learn M.M. Merzenich 2001 Cortical plasticity contributing to childhood development 8. Trained Neurons fired more quickly M.M. Merzenich, P Tallal, B. Peterson, S. Miller and W.M Jenkins 1999 9. Muscle strength increases by 22 percent through imagining study. G Yue and K J Cole. Journal of Neurophysiology. 10. A single neuron can go from having 1300 to 2700 synaptic connections- long-term memory for habituation. Craig Baily and Mary Chen. 11. Meditation experience is associated with increased cortical thickness Neuroreport 2005 12. Nervous systems are not like a machine and can change. J.J. Rosseau