The athlete has a brain, why do we neglect it?

For many years coaches and scientists have spent most of their time studying and working the heart and the muscles as the main “performance organs” of the athlete, and no doubt they are important.
They must have taken millions of tests to measure oxygen uptake, heart rate, HRV, strength,  explosive strength, taking muscle biopsies, making EMG, etc.
This was to understand the functioning and the mechanisms of the heart and the muscles and their response to training. Still the most important performance organ of the athlete, the brain, or maybe better, the central and autonomic nervous systems, were neglected.

EEG in elite sprinter
EEG in elite sprinter

Why was that? Maybe we were too busy working on the heart and the brain and just too happy doing that. Maybe because the brain is supposed to be so immensely complex that we wouldn’t be able to understand it anyway.
It is only recently that exercise physiologists have started to seriously consider the brain for example, as a factor in fatigue, e.g. Tim Noakes with his “central governor” model.
Interesting, in daily life we hardly do anything else than trying to understand and work with the brain, our own and that of others. We communicate and try to understand or predict the other’s emotion, thoughts and behaviour.
The brain is the seat of movement, thinking, planning, organizing,  integrating, or language and communication, motivation and will power, memory or creativity. It is the “control centre” of the hormonal system and of motor coordination and learning. Just to randomly mention a few important factors in sports performance.

EEG in archery (looking for the Alpha-burst)
EEG in archery (looking for the Alpha-burst)

Now you might say, what about sports psychology: aren’t  they studying the brain? Well basically not; most of the time they work with subjective information and many of them think we can solve all problems by talking and thinking. Have you ever seen a psychologist taking an EEG, an MRI or doing other objective measurements?


EEG in SF operators
EEG in SF operators


EEG in golf putting
EEG in golf putting

In Europe we have many  “mental coaches”, using a lot of self-help techniques, often without any education. A toolbox with only one tool.  Think about this: isn’t every coach a mental coach?  If not, what does that make you and me, just a physical coach or a “body coach”? So a mental coach is talking to the head and we are talking to the chunk of meat under the neck? That can’t be true.
And here is something that puzzles me: many coaches come from a background of education, of teaching, taking their pupils or students from A to B. How often do they seek the help of a psychologist in that process?

Many coaches are parents too, developing and helping their children from A to B. How often do they as a parent see the help of a psychologist?
Coaches also help their athletes getting from A to B, why would they all of a sudden need the assistance of a psychologist, leave alone a mental coach? Coaching isn’t more complicated than or different from teaching or parenting.
In my opinion, there cannot be something like mental training, since every workout is a mental workout! Every workout the athlete needs his or her brain to tap into many mental faculties too. It’s not only about a heart pumping  or muscles contracting. Every workout is an interaction between the coach, present or not, and the athlete on a mental level. The coach doesn’t have to push the athlete physically. His or her presence, a look, or a word might be enough. Every movement starts with a signal coming down from the brain. We should realize that every workout is an opportunity to improve an athlete physically, but also to improve an athlete mentally!

In my talks with most sports psychologists, I discovered they hardly keep in touch with the latest developments in the neurosciences. They use outdated concepts, like the circles of attention, or  relaxation training, they prefer to keep that black box closed while at the same time stressing the importance of mental factors in performance. I believe that comprehension proceeds control. The better you understand a system and its mechanisms, be it the heart, the muscle or the brain, the better the chances are for an effective change and for improvement of performance.
Considering that in elite sports, all athletes at that level have talent and have trained well, it is the brain that makes the ultimate difference, e.g. the ability to handle pressure and keep doing the right things, at the right time,  under pressure. The ability to perform at a high level competition that what they have learned and done in training, or even better than that.
Realizing this in an early stage in my work as a coach, I studied the brain from all possible angles and wrote about this, see the three articles below.

Kraaijenhof, H: Trends in biomechanics and biochemistry of sprints methodology; Track and Field Quarterly Review,  Vol.90, No,1, 1990, pg.6-9.

Kraaijenhof, H: Weg met de mysterieuze krachten in de sport – lang leve de mind-machine; Richting   Sportgericht, Vol.46, No.2, december 1991, pg.75-79.

Kraaijenhof, H: The human brain and sports performances: a coaches’ perspective; Coaching and Sport Science Journal, Vol.1, No.3, 1995, pg.15-18.

For the people who want to look further I made a small but careful selection of interesting books and articles about this subject:

Carter, R: The Human Brain Book; DK Publ. 2009.

LeDoux, J: The Synaptic Self; Viking Publ. 2002.

Joseph, R: The Right Brain and the Unconscious; Plenum Publ. 1992.

Austin, J.H: Zen and the Brain; MIT Press, 1999.

MacDonald, M: Your Brain,. The Missing Manual; Pogue Press, 2008.

Bodenhamer, B; Hall, L:  The User’s Manual for the Brain, Crown, 1999.

Buszaki, G: Rhythms of the Brain; Oxford Univ. Press, 2006.

Raab, M, Johnson, J.G; Heekeren, H.R.(Eds.): Mind and Motion: the Bidirectional link between    Thought and Action; Progr. in Brain. Res. Vol.174, 2009, Elsevier.

Basar, E: Brain-Body-Mind in the Nebulous Cartesian System: A Holistic Approach by Oscillations; Springer, 2011.

Yarrow, K; Brown, P; Krakauer, J: Inside the brain of an elite athlete: the neural processes that support high achievement in sports; Natur Rev.Neuroscience, Vol.10, No.8, 2009, pg.585-596.

Sologub, J: Eletroenzephalographie im Sport; J.A.Barth Verlag. Leipizg, DDR, 1976.

Nielsen, J.B: The olympic brain. Does corticospinal plasticity play a role in acquisition of skills required for high-performance sports?; J.Physiol. Vol.586, No.1, 2008, pg.65-70.

Zani, A; Proverbio, A.M; Posner, M.I.(Eds.) The Cognitive Electrophysiology of Mind and Brain; Elsevier, 2003.

Rossi, E.L: The Psychobiology of Gene Expression; W.W.Norton & Comp. 2002.

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