Head in the Game The Mental Engineering of the World’s Greatest Athletes

Brandon Sneed

Head in the Game is about the growing use of new technologies to provide feedback on what is taking place in the brain and to use feedback to train the brain and to train the integration of the mind, vision, and body to enhance sports performance. Becoming aware of how our mind is enhancing our performance, or is getting in the way, is important to improve all visual abilities, not just those related to sports. As Yogi Berra is quoted as saying, “90% of the game is half mental”. The technologies are new, but the goals haven’t changed. To be successful, the athletes need to take what they learn from the electronics and practice to make it habitual. It doesn’t matter what you do in practice or in therapy if you can’t consistently apply your new skills to your challenges. The goal is to replace a less efficient behavior with a more efficient behavior and to have the more efficient behavior become more automatic than what you were doing before. The more automatic the behavior becomes, the more resilient it will be to fatigue and stress.

Brandon Sneed’s first example is using an EEG to provide feedback. “I do best when I put myself in a mind-set of relaxed control – not straining, but working, feeling zoned in but calm, thinking only of moving forward…. Most people need at least thirty sessions to get lasting effects from EEG training. Some, even more… It is work which may be why EEG training hasn’t caught on. It’s easy to pop a pill and see when happens, but EEG training feels almost like going to the gym.” This is the same mind-set that patients need to develop when they are learning to align their eyes, to improve processing with their amblyopic eye, and to focus better and to track better. In vision therapy feedback comes from specially designed targets which may also incorporate new technologies.

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“The reason why golf is so difficult is because you’re starting the action. Your mind wants to be in control, but the golf swing has to be done on a subconscious level. It’s impossible to think about the thousands of muscles and tendons and ligaments that have to fire in a perfect sequence in a fraction of a second.” I recently blogged on How We Read. The visual components of reading are as complex as the components of swinging a golf club and are even more difficult to observe. And, while both acts are too fast and too complicated to be directed through conscious attention, you quiet your conscious mind while swinging a golf club while in reading your brain must be simultaneously combining current input with prior input from the page, along with previously stored input, while also forecasting what is coming next.

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Brandon Sneed appreciates the importance of the placebo and nocebo effects. “Then there’s this stunning example of the nocebo effect: a study at the Oxford Centre for Functional MRI of the Brain in 2011, led by professor of anaesthetic science Irene Tracey. While studying the efficacy of an opioid drug, she found that something that should be effective can be rendered useless after a subject is told it won’t work. That’s right: even though something is scientifically proven to help people – such as a pill – if people decide it’s not going to work, sometimes it won’t.” Supporting people should be an integral component of all care from medicine, to surgery, to therapy, to coaching, to teaching. This is not in lieu of effective treatment, it augments it. If someone becomes a victim and develops learned helplessness. If they become a passive patient instead of a person involved with their care. If the expectations that are placed on them are too high or too soon and they feel that they can’t, working to change that attitude must be part of their care. The teacher is more important than the curriculum. The therapist is more important than the technique. And for coaches see The Talent Code

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“To master the mind, first master the body.” The Western World separated the mind and the body at the beginning of the Enlightenment because the connections could not be proven at that time. It took hundreds of years for this accepted wisdom to be reversed. So while we are mostly training the brain, we are doing it through the body. “Keeping the mind relaxed yet focused for extended periods of time is hard and a skill almost everyone takes for granted.”

“No performance-enhancing drug or piece of technology can compare to a good night’s sleep.” Research on sleep clearly indicates that it is our brain that needs to rest and not our bodies. This is a little like turning your electronic device off and on to allow it to reset, but our brains take more time.

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I share Brandon Sneed’s amazement as it is expressed in the following excerpt. “This brings us to one to one of the most stunning thing’s I’ve learned so far. We have five senses, right? We experience those senses because of specialized cells throughout our body called sensory receptors. Everything you feel, hear, smell, taste, and see comes from those receptors sending the information they gather to your brain. Of all the sensory receptors we have, 70 percent are in our eyes alone. That’s 260 million (130 million per eye) receptors taking information in through the eyes and sending it to the brain, by way of 2.4 million nerve fibers. This adds up to our eyes sending our brain 109 gigabytes of data every second.

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“Larry Fitzgerald, the great Arizona Cardinals wide receiver, did vision training as a child with his grandfather, an optometrist. ‘Parents need to understand,’ Fitzgerald once said, ‘that you need over 17 visual skills to succeed. Seeing 20/20 is just one of those. Vision problems can have a serious impact.’ And not just in sports, he added, but also ‘on a child’s education.’”

 

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