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founding fathers of evidence-based medicine, once said, "50% of what you learn in medical school will turn out to be outdated or proven dead wrong within 5 years of students graduation".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? We have recently 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.
It has infinite possibilities if you think of this in a sporting context. Sporting cultures with great Directors, 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."
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 quarterback or holding midfielder that only see's the defense won't see the wide-open receivers or passes through the channels. Who is more successful, the person who sees the obstacles as their primary focus 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. 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 goal drought can seem never-ending. Bad habits are hard to break because of the function of Neuroplasticity within the confines of the Brain.
Laird Hamilton 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. Without even any direct psychological influence, Leeds United's Marcelo Bielsa training methods promote positive Neuroplasticity to a point. His murderball sessions creating neurons of the rhythm of the zone and flow added with the confidence of peak physical fitness and the aura he carries akin to the great managers of our time. His meticulous preparation adds to the player's confidence creating positive neurons but still this requires an influence of direct Neuroplasticity.
Leed's second season looks more uncomfortable and challenging, which will bring the potential for old harmful habits to come to the surface if the required work is not done on the Brain plasticity but Bielsa’s methods should see them through. You need to be working on the collective Neuroplasticity consistently, or the success will only ever be temporary, which is why so many teams suffer second season syndrome in the premier league after a successful first season back. Quite a few teams exceed the expectations of the soccer world in their first seasons after promotion in England, as Sheff Utd showcased. This is partly because they are no longer victims of their old environment. In scientific terms, the new experiences automatically create new neurons, so you get an automatic bounce like when you see a new coach come in. Of course, this does not discount all the hard work on the training ground, overall talent, and tactical approach, but it's an added layer that can override your preparation.
Neuroplasticity does manifest in your behavior and how you act. Consequently, your Body language reveals a great deal about your inner state. 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. Therefore, body language has to be used as a performance tool. The Leeds United player's reactions to going a goal down to Brentford in 2019 is a prime example. It was chin up and chests out, and it spooked Brentford, who expected Leeds to collapse, but no, Leeds equalized and played strong throughout. This started the turning of the tide in their promotion year. When you concede a score or suffer a setback if you truly knew you would win the game anyway, how would you respond? Can you stay conscious in moments of pressure so you don't show any subconscious weaknesses to the opposition and your fans? Of course, this applies to upper management as much as it does to the players.
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 one of the most remarkable examples 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. The Brain doesn't know the difference between real or imagined experiences.
This opens many possibilities in terms of how teams perform at their best. Look at Manchester United under Alex Ferguson and since, Fergie time was a well-known term as Manchester United scored many late goals. The air of invincibility. Opposition teams panicked late into the match in their decision-making, and you could see the doubt and fear in their body language and how they expressed themselves. This led to poor game management. The late goal would usually manifest as a result, but its source resides in Neuroplasticity and the oppositions over-sensitization of the nervous system in those clutch moments. One has to understand the influence of the neurons in those moments in terms of decision-making. Did the opposition keep the ball and play down the clock, did they stay calm and composed, or did they kick it out long, encouraging another wave of attack from Manchester?
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.
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 don’t want rather than what they do want? Anfield can be intimidating on European nights. Liverpool are 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 the level of intimidation in Anfield. Barcelona was only down 1-0 at half time and going through, but the body language was desperate in the changing room. Players were over-emotional, which is a classic symptom of over-sensitization of the nervous system due to negative Neuroplasticity. The previous year's trauma came up to the surface because it was never processed correctly. This was so much so that Jordi Alba was in tears at half time. Those were the tears of defeat and made no sense given Barcelona were still 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?
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 most certainly 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? Many schools of trauma healing 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.
Anxiety, in basic terms, is fear of a feeling that people are instinctively running from, especially in the big moments. 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 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 until it is too late. 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 neurons are 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.
The English Men's national team lost on penalties to Italy in the Euro 2020 final in Wembley in the summer. Southgate decided who takes the penalties on previous tournaments and training where the stakes were much lower and the pressure not the same. Having missed a penalty in Euro 96, Southgate knows the difference, so why did he make this error. His decision-making processes let him down under the weight of pressure. If Southgate were to argue differently, I would say this remains unprocessed in his subconscious. The players who missed all have the physical ability to take a very accurate penalty, but they weren't mentally prepared for the moment. In preparation, feeling the feeling of winning Euros needs to be faced. Can taking the penalty be imagined so when you are faced with this experience, you are more ready to thrive, or do you have people around the camp saying just another game. Do you think any of the players walking to the penalty spot thought this was just a another game? Remember, the Brain doesn't know the difference between real and imagined. Can you be prepared to process the nerves and any doubts, what-ifs that may come up? A player's mind prepared as much as it can be for these big moments would it lead to better decisiveness and execution at the moment? The answer is obviously yes. Why? Because you are less likely to go unconscious and into an autopilot state. Every one of the penalties missed, the players would have zoned out, and this is a survival impulse your Brain will use in high-pressure situations so you can survive the moment. The Brain thinks there is a physical threat and doesn't know the difference between real and imagined.
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.
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 or not?
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 one of the few level playing fields of modern Sport.
You can do so much right and still fall short. It is easy to process emotions in times of low pressure. 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.
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 self-fulfilling prophecy do you want to write today? Start afresh from this moment and align the intention of your thoughts and feelings towards your purpose accompanied with your passionate, emotional engagement, and I promise you will accomplish wonders.
Author Ronan Currid. Master in Neuro-Linguistic Programming, Master in Ericksonian 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 various fields. (c). firstname.lastname@example.orgScientific Studies supporting this essay: