There has been a lot of attention given recently to the high tech brain workouts that elite athletes use to improve performance. Companies such as Neurotopia have developed brain-training software that can boost performance by sharpening the mind and increasing focus. Olympic beach volleyball gold medalist Kerri Walsh-Jennings is just one of a number of athletes who don a brain wave sensor at the company’s facility to control a videogame with their brain. There are also many general brain-training resources available online from companies like Luminosity and brainHQ.
So can the weekend warrior and non-elite athlete benefit from brain training? Absolutely. No matter what sport you participate in, exercising the brain can yield improvement. Training the brain for better athletic performance falls into three main areas: Execution, Focus, and Decision Making. The following low-tech approaches can be done anywhere for absolutely no cost.
Visualization for Better Execution
The basis for success in sports is the ability to flawlessly execute basic skills. Whether it is hitting, kicking or shooting a ball, swinging a club, or other specific movement, proficiency must be achieved. While nothing can replace physical practice, skills can be enhanced through visualization training. Many may be familiar with the study in which students were tested on free throw ability: one group was instructed to practice free throws an hour a day; another group told to visualize making shots; and another group did nothing. After 30 days the group that practiced an hour a day and the visualization group saw the same performance improvement (about 25% accuracy increase).
Visualization takes imagination. One must be able to mentally see, hear and experience the sensations of the specific technique or game situation. To be effective, it is important to visualize the activity in the first person (as opposed to “watching” yourself performing). An example visualization script I’ve used with success to improve my tennis stroke:
- In the mind’s eye fully visualize the court, including the surface, colors, and surroundings, even a hitting partner.
- See the ball coming across the net as you move and set-up the shot. Hear and see the ball bouncing as you take your racket back and execute the stroke. Feel and hear the impact through the hitting zone and watch as the ball leaves the racket and successfully goes over the net.
- Be specific with the placement of the shot you are hitting and always imagine successful outcomes. One might practice cross-court strokes and then move onto hitting to other areas of the court.
- Also “watch” your hitting partner’s movements and reaction. See yourself moving back to the middle of the court to prepare for the next shot.
- Practice hitting different strokes: slice, topspin, and flat shots just as you would use in a game.
This basic approach can be used for any sport or physical activity. One can often find performance scripts online. Beyond working on mechanics, visualization training is also great for preparing for game situations. For basketball one might work on receiving an outlet pass and pulling up for a jump shot, or in soccer volleying home a goal on a corner kick.
Visualization is not just beneficial for ball sports. Bobsledders visualize going down the course before every run. Cyclists, runners and swimmers can work on better technique. Top triathletes even visualize their transition sequences.
Concentration Exercises For Better Focus
Today’s technology-oriented world has left many with mild ADHD. While in some ways this can be helpful for managing busy lives, in sports the ability to focus and stay in the moment is a trait all world-class athletes share. Whether it is performing in the clutch or fighting through physical and mental fatigue to make it to the finish line, the ability to focus regardless of distraction is crucial for success.
The mind naturally likes to wander, so focus and concentration training generally involves performing a relatively simple task non-stop for a specific duration of time. One easy example is to use number squares. These are simple five by five grids with the numbers 1 through 25 randomly distributed in the boxes. The exercise is to cross out boxes in order as quickly as possible. Sounds simple, right? It is, but it takes concentration. Start in a quiet environment then add to the challenge by completing them in places where there are more distractions. Then you can do multiple boxes in a row. If you find yourself without a set of squares, open a book or magazine and count the words in a paragraph or article.
Improved Decision Making
Team and racket sports require participants to constantly take in information and react. This process primarily takes place in the frontal lobe area of the brain, which controls planning, movement, reasoning and problem solving. Just like skill development, improving on-field decision-making is best done participating in the sport itself, however this part of the brain can be exercised and developed, much like general fitness training benefits performance.
Games and puzzles, like chess, poker, sudoko, and crosswords are the easiest ways to train the frontal lobe portion of the brain, and they work out all the functions that are crucial for strong sports performance. In addition to these more cerebral activities, electronic games like Simon and Bop-it can also be beneficial. These require one to react to stimuli and help develop the brain’s processing speed.
Elite athletes aren’t the only ones who can utilize brain workouts to improve sports performance. Execution, focus and decision-making can all be enhanced by regularly practicing these simple no-cost exercises. You’ll also likely find the increased concentration and mental agility will help other aspects of your personal and professional life as well.