Excellence in Sports: Training the Brain
Basketball players and coachers use to say that you cannot teach talent. Either you have it or you don’t. This is true, yet many talented players fail to fulfil their potential. Talented players who are getting lost in the game are not an uncommon sight. In order to fulfil their potential, players need additional highly developed skills.
Unlike talent, these skills, which will be elaborated later on, are ones that definitely can be attained by learning and can be practised and improved.
Attention and Concentration on the Court
Apart from physical fitness, athletic traits, control of the ball, shooting etc, a basketball player needs also highly developed attention and concentration skills, good coordination, high-paced information processing ability – and the ability to command this set of skills under pressure, or in other cases to make use of them with no pressure at all. We all are familiar with the type of players that become noticeable only when the game’s fate is entirely up to them. Only then they awake and start playing well. These are players, whose level of arousal becomes optimal and allows them excellent performance only in times of pressure. This is a good quality, but is not suffice. In contrast to these players, there are others who “disappear” in big games or under pressure. The functioning level of these two types of players depends too much in external stimulations. In both cases the result is a lack of stability of the player. Stability is a critical factor for a player, as it constitutes an essential element in building his mental strength.
Attention and concentration skills, planning, rapid information processing and other developed cognitive skills are part of the components, which create mental strength.
Training the cognitive systems, in conjunction with carefully adjusted to the sportsman motorial-sensual work, can decrease to a minimum the dependency of a player in external stimulations and enable him greater regulation and self control.
Remember the sentence of Rugby champion, Phil Glanville:
“It is always easy to stay focused and meet the challenge, when you are about to lose, but the genuine art of the professionals originate from their ability to perform well over and over again, when people expect them to succeed – This marks the distinction of real champions”.
There are players who shoot wonderful, control the ball and pass it very well, but when they need to show overall performance as well as think creatively, they fail.
In certain cases the failure in execution results from their being incapable of coordinating over time or under pressure, all the areas simultaneously working in their brain. This synchronization among areas in the brain can be practiced.
According to John Ratey, Neuro-Psychiatrist from Harvard University, the more you practice these kinds of high skills (Planning, Organization, Decision Making), the more automated they become. In addition, Ratey claims that exercises related to one part of the brain, benefit also its other part and that way various skills get improved simultaneously. His explanation for this approach is that exercising different abilities, such as spatial orientation, language, memory, sequencing thinking, etc. operates different parts of the same systems in the brain. Therefore, operating a particular brain system as a result of exercising a certain skill, will also bring to the improvement of other skills. For instance: When a basketball player is doing an exercise, which requires coordination, focusing of visual attention, auditory attention and concentration and at the same time he passes the ball and “breaks” an exercise into a sequence organized, numbered stages, he actually practices sequencing thinking, planning, visual memory and spatial orientation in parallel to motorial-sensual work, which requires coordination and collaborated action of many areas in the brain.
The combination of these actions requires high attention and good concentration skills. The player is in fact training his high brain functions and exercising the neurological systems and their way of operation, similar to the way they operate in course of a game.
In principle, if you understand how the neuro-cognitive systems work, you can definitely train them and by this way improve the player’s skills.
Orientation and Dis-Orientation
A sense of orientation is the way a person feels, when he recognizes his location relative to the space around him in the aspects of seeing, hearing and sensing.
When you talk about good orientation, you usually refer to spatial orientation.
For the sake of illustration: imagine yourself travelling in Ayalon Highway to a place that you are not familiar with. You would probably be more attentive and aware of your surroundings. You may prefer turning off the radio. After turning right and going up an interchange, you immediately realize that this is not the right interchange. You may probably feel your heartbeat rate has increased a bit and that your lips are dry, your breathing would become flat and short and if you look at the mirror, you would see the turbid look in your eyes. You keep driving and suddenly you discover far-away but clear the Shalom Tower, which you are familiar with. Your initial reaction will be slowdown of your heartbeats, more relieved breathing and focused look in your eyes, because now, although you are not in the place you were supposed to be, you got an anchor in space, helping you to figure out the direction which you ought to turn to. The Shalom Tower is your orientation mark in space, or in other words: the anchor which restored your ability of spatial orientation.
The ability to retain your orientation is a very significant ability to a basketball player, both while moving without the ball and while positioning for a shot or a rebound.
Fatigue, stress or excitement during game can loosen the sense of orientation of players and be reflected by dry lips, inner feeling of disquiet and diminished veiled eyes, the exact symptoms felt by the driver who lost his direction in Ayalon Highway. In this case the player will look confused and not focused. He has lost his orientation anchor pertaining to his surrounding environment.
When a coach recognizes such distress in a player, he has to allow him a short brake, in hope that the player will come back to his senses. Sometimes sending him out to rest only empowers his sense of stress and frustration and reinforces his situation; therefore it is preferable for the coach and player that the later will remain out of court and perform a specific action, which will give the player his sense of orientation back.
The coach needs to direct the player’s attention to his situation and to provide a solution in the form of a new anchor for spatial orientation in the court.
It is possible to anchor orientation by using physical-motorial exercises; by means of quick simulation exercises or talking to yourself and internally focusing at your breathing, etc. It is important to understand, that the player’s ability to be aware of his own condition and take care of himself using an immediate solution, invigorates his mental strength and sense of self-control.
Bad Habits and Motivation
Players and coaches would often strive to change a bad habit of a player and not always succeed. Failed attempts to change habits seemingly prove that the player objects to the change and the coach may interpret this as a motivational fault of the player. First, this is the nature of a habit – Changing it may prove very difficult and it causes the player and the coach to repeat a well-known behavioral pattern.
Second- When the concept of motivation is properly understood, you recognize that motivation makes it possible for a person to do what he is capable of, but it need not be inferred that motivation enables a person to accomplish what is beyond his range of abilities. Motivation, as strong as it may be, will not make it possible for a player with concentration difficulties to keep up his level of concentration all game long.
In most cases, the player is filled with motivation to perform the change, but lacks the ability. In other words: “It is not that the player does not want to, he just can’t!”
A player whose attention is disrupted after 10 minutes of physical and mental effort will show his “bad habits” in this stage of the game. This is a neurological state, which is not subjected to the direct effect of motivation. In this case the motivation to continue with the game (and the attempt to concentrate) only worsen the situation, since proceeding with the game in this point will only further reduce attention and concentration. The key to changing this situation is improvement of the initial attention and concentration abilities and extension of the attention range through focused training. Only after this change takes effect, when the player will have the neurological basis that allows him flexibility of the attention and concentration functions, he will have the functional flexibility, which will make it possible for him to change the “bad habit”. In this stage awareness and guidance of a trainer or sports psychologist will have very powerful impact. The player’s motivation will not be a matter of concern anymore.
Motivation is always there. What is going to be changed is ability
Another example: A player has made a mistake. The game goes on. The player stays on the court, but his thoughts are busy with reflecting on his mistake. He is not capable of detaching himself from these thoughts, not because he does not want to, but due to the recurrent operation of a circuit in his brain. In this process the electric energy, produced by the player’s brain stimulates the recurrent thoughts and the player is not concentrated in the game and makes repetitive mistakes. The player is going through disorientation state, which stems from a lack of effective self regulation. Both player and his coach react with a high level of frustration.
Is it right to argue that the player has no motivation to come back to the game after his first mistake? Don’t very talented players also experience such situations?
Is it not happening to players who have strong motivation to help their team succeed? In these cases neither talent nor motivation are suffice, but rather high self consciousness and developed personal regulation and attention skills. The ability of the player to regain his senses (In our terms: to return to a state of orientation) and cut off the irritating circuit in his brain, is the one that will enable the player to come back to the game.
There are many and diverse ways to acquire consciousness and self control.
These can be attained by learning and performance can be improved by constant practice. There is a need for better awareness of the developments in this area- to the extent that it can lead to a change of priorities in the conception of professional training. This time, for a change, the essence of the matter is not high monetary investments in infrastructure; rather a true aspiration for excellence and receptive approach from players, coaches and managements of sports associations.