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 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.’”

 

The Power of Play

Sleights of Mind

The Power of Play

David Elkind

This book addresses the concerns that many of us have about ignoring child development and the ranges of development within a grade level and even within individuals when educational standards are set. David Elkind reminds us that most children are enthusiastic learners in the appropriate circumstances but may be anxiously unsuccessful in other conditions. Continue reading

Welcome to Your Child’s Brain

IMG_4199Sandra Aamodt & Sam Wang

While Welcome to Your Child’s Brain is part of the self-help genre, it is written by two neuroscientists who bring their own research and that of others to the key questions of child development. For those who are interested in which areas of the brain are involved in different behaviors, the current research on this is presented, but effectively raising children has similarities to effectively using a computer. You need to know how the programs work. You do not need to know the inner workings of the computer. In the case of children (and other humans) we don’t need to know the areas of the brain which are involved, most of which is still poorly understood. This book, like others which I have reviewed, is a response to some of the misleading information, toys, and educational programs which are being presented to parents and it is this information which has the potential to be most beneficial. To make this as concise as possible, I will present bullets in the form of excerpts and will include page numbers if you would like to read more on any of these statements or conclusions.

The “best gift” you can give your children is self-control. Self-control and other executive functions of the brain (like working memory, flexible thinking, and resisting the temptation to go on automatic) contribute to the development of [children’s] most important basic brain function: the ability to control their own behavior in order to reach a goal.” P. xii

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It probably doesn’t matter exactly what excites your children; as long as they are intensely engaged by an activity and concentrate on it, they will be improving their ability to self-regulate and thus their prospects for the future.” P. xii

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Babies start to follow an adult’s gaze as early as four months of age. P. 7

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Being effective in the world is enormously rewarding for children and adults alike. P. 25

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One reason that people get so worked up over the nature vs. nurture debate is the widespread assumption that genetic contributions to development are deterministic, while environmental contributions are flexible… Nearly all genes that influence behavior act by changing the odds of a particular developmental outcome, not by specifying it exactly – so your child’s heredity is not destiny… Indeed, from an individual neuron’s perspective, it would be hard to distinguish between “genetic” and “environmental” influences. Signals that enter your brain through your eyes or ears (that is, via experience) influence development by causing chemical signals to modify genes or proteins – just as genetic influences do. Some of these changes are reversible, and some are not, but whether they originated inside or outside the body is not the determining factor. Pp. 32 – 33

Epigenetics is a new field which is not easy to understand. Environmental influences can determine if and when genes are expressed and some of these can even be passed on to future generations. The following excerpts relate to epigenetics.

When epigenetic modifications occur in sperm or eggs, they can affect future generations. This process is best understood in laboratory animals. For example, female mice that spent a particular two weeks of their youth in an “enriched environment” (with many toys) learned more easily as adults. And so did their pups – even when those pups were raised by a foster mother and did not receive any enrichment themselves. The pups instead benefited from their mother’s experiences passed down through epigenetic modifications to her DNA. P. 34

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To start with a basic principle, your child’s genes can influence his environment – and vice versa. His personal characteristics lead him to seek out certain experiences in life and his tendencies to react to other people in certain ways affect how they behave toward him…. Because the influences run in both directions, many developmental processes are feedback loops, in which our genes influence our environment, which then influence our genes (or at least the way they are expressed), and so on…. With all of this interaction, it is nearly impossible to figure out how much of a particular behavior is caused by genes and how much by environment. P. 35

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Sleep debt has serious consequences, including reduced mental performance, depressed mood, impaired health, and weight gain. P. 78

 

Perception of large-scale motion patterns, like raindrops seen through the windshield of a moving car, improves rapidly between three and five months and then continues to develop slowly through middle childhood. This aspect of motion processing, the most vulnerable to disruption, is impaired in some developmental disorders, including dyslexia and autism. P. 83

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Young children’s play contributes to the development of their most important basic brain function: the ability to control their own behavior in order to reach a goal. P. 112

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Preschool children’s ability to resist temptation is a much better predictor of eventual academic success than their IQ scores. P. 112

Succeeding at challenging self-control tasks builds more success, but repeated failure may instead teach the child that there’s no point in trying. P. 120

 

Active children have higher self-esteem than inactive children. P. 131

 

All of us have experienced emotions that seemed overwhelming and out of control. Imagine feeling that way much of the time, and you have a picture of your child’s daily experience. One reason that life with toddlers is such a wild ride is that the parts of the nervous system that produce raw emotions mature earlier than the brain regions that interpret and manage them. P. 155

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Until their own regulatory capacity is fully developed, your children rely on you to moderate their emotions, by soothing and distracting them, and to help them learn how it’s done. Parents who are more sensitive to their infant’s needs and respond quickly to emotional cues tend to raise children who are better at regulating their own emotions. Pp. 161 – 162

 

If your child believes that intelligence is a fixed characteristic, that belief will make her act less smart. Children who think a test measures their innate competence do not try as hard or perform as well as those who think that the effort is the major determinant of success or failure. P. 188

 

Word-form recognition is learned through experience. This capacity seems to be an example of a more general ability of the inferior temporal cortex to visually recognize objects. P. 212

 

Stress profoundly affects the developing brain. P. 224

You may not think of nagging as a way of rewarding your child for misbehaving, but even yelling can actually encourage the behavior you’re trying to stop, especially if that’s the best way for your child to get your attention. Completely ignoring the problem behavior is usually the most effective way to get it to stop – if you can stick with it long enough.

It’s common for parents to turn to yelling or spanking as their first response to problem behaviors, but a large body of research shows that this negative approach to behavior modification is not very effective in the long run. The effects of punishment are fleeting and tend not to generalize to other situations. P. 248

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So many of the things we do instinctively and many of the things promoted in our culture are correct, but many are not. Concepts of child-rearing tend to change, but children remain mostly the same as the environment changes. Due to many pressures, some of what is being done in education at this time is not in the child’s best interest nor will it produce the desired changes in a significant percent of the population. We have many new distractions with which to cope and we can’t pretend that they don’t exist. I hope that this information is helpful.

What if Everybody Understood Child Development? Part 1

Let Them Eat Dirt

Growing Up with Sensory Issues:Insider Tips from a Woman with Autism

Reclaiming Childhood:Letting Children Be Children in Our Achievement Oriented Society

Book Review: Nuture Shock: New Thinking about Children

What if Everybody Understood Child Development? Part 3

Rae Pica

 

Explicit learning may get the facts across more quickly than learning through exploration and discovery, but the latter has far more meaning to children and stays with them longer.

Adult personality is built on the child’s play. Among the social skills learned are the ability to share, cooperate, negotiate, compromise, make and revise rules, and to take the perspective of others. Play provides opportunities for children to meet and solve problems – the number-one ability they will most assuredly require in this rapidly changing world. It helps children express their thoughts and feelings and to deal with stress. To cope with fears they can’t yet understand or articulate. Through play, children acquire literacy, mathematical, and creative skills. Make-believe play, in particular, has been linked to self-regulations skills, which in turn have been linked to greater academic success than IQ has. How is social development supposed to be fostered? Do we imagine that one grows up and suddenly knows how to effectively communicate and collaborate and to be part of a community?

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Everyone benefits from a break. As far back as 1885 and 1901, the research is quite clear on this: both children and adults learn better and more quickly when their efforts are distributed (breaks are included) than when concentrated (work is conducted in longer periods).

Outdoors, children can engage in behaviors (loud, messy, and boisterous) considered unacceptable and annoying indoors. And because recess is a break from structure and expectations, children have an opportunity to take control of their world, which is a rarity in their lives and which offers more preparation for adulthood than does memorizing the state capitals.

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Research has demonstrated that children learn better when they learn on their own or from each other.

Nowhere else in the world do standardized tests play such a large role in education. Standardized tests promote the myth of “one right answer”. There is a real danger to our children if they grow up believing there is only one right answer to every question.

Alina Tugend, author of Better by Mistake: The Unexpected Benefits of Being Wrong, said that as a result of all the pressure placed on them to be perfect, today’s children lack resiliency, a key characteristic in happy, successful adults. The first time they make a big mistake, they fall apart. Additionally, she said, we’re raising a generation of kids afraid to take risks and to try creative things. They just want to “stick to what they know, pass that test, get that A, and move, on.”

Just because the things in children’s lives have changed, it doesn’t mean the children themselves have.

The homework debate has a long history, dating back to the 1920s and the 1930s. But one has to wonder why there’s any debate at all, when the research clearly shows no correlation between academic achievement and homework in elementary school.

      There’s also the value of relaxation, which is both a learned skill and a necessary one. Acquiring the ability to relax enables children to find a quiet place inside themselves that allows them to cope – to maintain control over their bodies and minds. The child who learns to relax will have the ability to manage stress and therefore lead a healthier – and more serene – life. But it will also ensure a more energetic life, as stress is most certainly an energy robber. There’s no debate over whether learning is important for kids. The thing is, they’re learning all the time; it’s just unfortunate that learning about such things as oneself, nature, and stress management are not considered as worthy today as are math equations and spelling words.

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People tend to misunderstand what positive reinforcement is. Ellen Ava Sigler said, “They believe that positive reinforcement is sweets, treats, and empty praise, when positive reinforcement is positive attention. Simply acknowledging a child’s work or talking to a child about what they’re doing is positive reinforcement. The child who has come to expect an intrinsic reward – who has become convinced that everything she does is worthy of praise or prizes – will be the adolescent or adult who can’t handle life’s realities.

I just read a review of a soon to be released book entitled, Emotional Agility: Get Unstuck, Embrace Change, and Thrive in Work and Life. It struck me what a small percentage of self-help books are on improving your math skills, reading sills, or note-taking abilities and how many are on themes like emotional agility. There is a disconnect between how we are pressuring children in the educational race with narrow goals with the assumption that this will help them later in life and the problems that they are most likely to have as adults – those without a single correct answer. The goal of education should be to prepare the whole child for both ethical and pragmatic reasons. School has many opportunities and should have the expertise to help children develop skills other than math and reading which have been determined to be more important to their ultimate happiness and success in life.

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Reclaiming Childhood:Letting Children Be Children in Our Achievement Oriented Society

The Other Side of the Report Card: Assessing Students’ Social, Emotional, and Character Development

The End of Average

What if Everybody Understood Child Development? Part 2

Rae Pica

 

According to Marcy Guddemi, executive director of the Gesell Institute of Child Development, children are not reaching their developmental milestones any sooner than they did in 1925 when Arnold Gesell first did his research. “One of our misguided expectations right now in the education field is that every child should leave kindergarten reading. Well, not every child is going to leave kindergarten reading.” A child’s development absolutely cannot be accelerated or hurried in any way.

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Politicians pander to the ridiculous notion that education is a race. And teachers – from preschool to the primary grades – are being forced to abandon their understanding of what is developmentally appropriate and teach content they know to be wrong for kids.

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Demanding that children perform skills for which they’re not yet ready creates fear and frustration in them.

Childhood is not a dress rehearsal for adulthood. It is a separate, unique, and very special phase of life. And we’re essentially wiping it out of existence in a misguided effort to ensure children get ahead.

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We do have a great deal of research detailing the impact of stress on the learning process. Dr. William Stixrud sums it up quite nicely when he writes, “stress hormones actually turn off the parts of the brain that allow us to focus attention, understand ideas, commit information to memory and reason critically.”

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The experts insist that today’s children are no less safe than children of my generation. Stranger danger, which tends to top the list of parents’ fears, truly is a myth. According to the U. S. Department of Justice statistics on violent crimes, between 1973 and 2002, out of every thousand children kidnapped, just one of two of them were abducted by strangers. In fact, according to the National Center for Health Statistics, children are four times more likely to die of heart disease than to be kidnapped by a stranger.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA stranger

The pressure for students to spend more time on academics and to pass test after test – to win the race that education has become – is so great that basic human needs are being ignored and unmet.

  • Numerous studies have demonstrated that physically active students perform better in, and have better attitudes toward, school.
  • Movement is the young child’s preferred – and most effective – mode of learning, but we make them sit still regardless. Why do we insist on teaching children in any way other than via their preferred – and most effective – method?

When children move over, under, around, through, beside, and near objects and others, they better grasp the meaning of these prepositions and geometry concepts. When they perform a “slow walk” or skip “lightly”, adjectives and adverbs become much more than abstract ideas. When they’re given the opportunity to physically demonstrate such action words as stomp, pounce, stalk, or slither – or descriptive words such as smooth, strong, gentle, or enormous – word comprehension is immediate and long-lasting. The words are in context, as opposed to being a mere collection of letters.

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The Mislabled Child

Thinking Goes to School:Piaget’s Theory in Practice

Reading Instruction in Kindergarten