What athletes need to know about Neuro-plasticity.

First of all, what is Neuro-Plasticity?

The term “the brain is plastic” refers to Neuro-Plasticity. The definition is that the brain is malleable like plastic. It has the ability to change, adapt, or in other words, LEARN.

How does the brain learn? By creating new nerve pathways or strengthening existing nerve pathways and differentiating them from each other. Every time you learn a new skill you change your brain.

How does this look?

Think of the brain like a circuit board. The paths between the various circuits are like the pathways in your brain. LEARNING is the creation and then definition of the pathways or circuits.

Learning in the brain drives change in a structural way and also in a chemical way.

In the beginning of acquiring a new skill, chemicals signal more between neurons. This increase in chemical signals is more our short term change. Learning to ride your bike on the first day for example, you would notice the following

  • The first time you might fall off
  • The second, third, fourth and for an amount of time in that initial practise you may keep falling off
  • As you practise in that first session you notice that you begin to stay on the bike for longer periods of time before you fall off
  • You decide after some time that you have had enough for the day

Day two you get on and you are not quite as good as you thought you would be. Perhaps you fall off almost as quickly as you did the first time. Yet yesterday at the end of your practise session you were able to say on for a few minutes before you lost your balance.

So why is that?

Your short term practise session drove more chemical change in your brain to begin with. The increase in chemicals between the neurons involved in what you were doing had continued to increase over the practise session.

However to have that improvement become more long term we need a change in the structure of the brain.

Structural change, involves the connection of the circuits in your circuit board. Developing a pathway and then defining that pathway through PRACTISE. To begin with, we must understand that a great deal of long term practise is required to transfer a skill into the long term memory, to learn, to rewire and to change the sensory maps in your brain. Thus, to alter your brains structure and drive plastic change.

So it will take more than one practise session to be an accomplished bike rider.

Other things we need to know about learning, practise and plastic change

  • It is specific. So you have mastered your bike up and down your flat street, but how well do you fare when you encounter a hill? a corner? a bumpy trail?
  • The brain adapts specifically to the task you give it.
  • The amount of practise required is variable among individuals
  • The primary driver of plastic change is practise! Sorry but drugs can’t help. Taking a pill and sitting on the couch will achieve nothing.
  • The brain is changed by everything you do AND everything you do not do. “use it or lose it” You have driven plastic change and the structure of your brain has altered so that you have mastered riding your bike. Taking a few years off the bike does not necessarily mean you can’t ride one anymore, but you feel a little rusty. Its like going down a road you knew well but haven’t been down in years, you will likely go a little slower the first revisit.
  • The harder you struggle in your practise, the more your brain has to change. So the LOAD is important. In the same way that lifting a weight with your biceps that was super easy is not going to drive your biceps to grow or get strong, the BRAIN also needs a certain amount of struggle in order to drive plastic change. That is physical structural change in the brain. Where you struggle most is where you improve the most. We are designed to do tomorrow, what we cannot do today.

“Struggle is not an option, its a biological requirement”

How does this fit into athleticism? We already know that practise makes perfect. We know that the difficulty of that practise is vital to drive structural change in the brain. Athletes typically master this from a young age. Ask a pro tennis player how many serves they have practiced since their first tennis lesson as a small child. The number is astounding.

Deep practise drives change in the brain. What we must remember is that deep practise of ANYTHING drives plastic change. Your brain does not care if you want that skill or if you don’t. If you do it a lot, your brain will reorganise itself. Therefore it should be said that “Perfect practise makes perfect” If you want a skill to be perfect, you must practise it perfectly.

Heres where Athletes need to understand something.

The tiny skills that make up the movements in sport are mapped in the brain, and depending on your amount of practise, are structurally embedded in your brain.

An athletes brain has typically done three things

  • identified the ideal pathways for the perfect skill.
  • structurally reorganised itself to define and strengthen that particular pathway for that skill.
  • eliminated the pathways that did not allow for the skill to be performed perfectly. This is called ‘neural pruning’

An elite athlete will have LESS pathways associated for a particular skill than a novice athlete will. A novice will not yet have adequately defined the perfect pathway for that skill. The novice has completed less practise hours and therefore has less ’neural pruning’ to show for it.

So practise not only drives the change in the brain that we want, it also helps to eliminate the ‘mistake pathways’ that we do not want.

Lets now relate this to the Neural Hierarchy.

In the Neural Hierarchy we know that the Brain organises its sensory input with this approach

1- Visual system

2- Vestibular system

3- Propiropceptive system

However when we look at sports specific skills we usually look at things from the BOTTOM up

3- Proprioceptive system — our movement ‘maps’ in the brain involving our movements, muscles, bones, joints, physical sensations associated with feeling and completing sports movements and skills.

In fact this is usually where training a skill begins and ends.

What about the other two systems? If our brain orders these systems in a hierarchal fashion why are we not paying attention to our skills in this way?

1- Visual system

The visual system is placed here because we are wired to survive and vision is fairly vital for survival.

Visual skills

When discussing visual skills in sport, it is important to understand that vision is more than just ‘seeing’ Vision is the complex organisation, integration and understanding of what is being seen. Vision is the processing of visual information.

With neuro-plasticity in mind, lets think about the visual skill of moving the eyes in all direction at all speeds.

The skill in moving the eyes is one of the first skills we acquire when we are born. Before we have developed the pathways for movements (proprioception) we are able to dart our eyes around.

This skill can affect athletic performance in huge ways.

Firstly remember that skills we do not practise a lot can deteriorate as the pathway is less used by the brain.

The skill of moving the eyes

  • right to the edges of our ability
  • converging — getting the eyes to co-ordinate movements together
  • moving the eyes at speed from one moving object to the next
  • identifying moving objects quickly and the being able to judge their speed, trajectory and predict the next location,

These skills are less accurate, less defined in the brains pathways as we use them less and less. Athletes rely on these skills all the time, however they are not practised specifically and with the amount of load required to initiate much struggle. They are typically only practised when the sport is being played, when the larger skills are being practised. These vital tiny skills are only ever being practised by ACCIDENT.

Practising visual skills like

  • convergence
  • depth perception
  • accomodation — switching distances with the eyes
  • saccades
  • contrast
  • central and peripheral awareness
  • stabilising the eye gaze
  • tracking a moving object
  • tracking multiple moving objects
  • fixating on an object still or moving
  • reacting to a visual stimulus

Will define and strengthen the pathways for these specific skills AND begin clearing the pathways that are not as perfect, accurate or helpful to that sports skills. It is vital that visual skills are trained (practised) at varying speeds and amounts for increased LOAD, specificity and struggle in order to get the structural plastic change in the brain.

This has a huge effect on performance. Due to the hierarchal approach the brain has to these systems (remember vision is number ONE) visual skills that are highly defined and practised then filter down and improve the execution of the bigger movements.

How well do your eyes move? Excellent eye movements contribute to faster and more accurate processing of visual information. Always miss a ball when its coming at you from a certain angle? Direction? Speed? You can change that.

The quality of your complex movements is determined by the quality of your small movements. When it comes to skills in sport, your big movements are made up of the tiny movements and skills that come from the systems that orient us in our environment. The Neural Hierarchy. Visual skills are therefore vital to athletic performance.

The vestibular system receives input from the visual system and its job is to keep our eyes level while we are in motion.

The input from the vestibular system is what helps us know where we are in space. If vision is a vital component to that, and assuming we are now training our visual skills, how do we integrate this with vestibular training?

Training this system is the same as training any other skill. LOAD and specificity to drive plastic change and therefore structural change in the brain. Vestibular (and visual) skills are often the ones found most difficult by even elite athletes because they are almost never trained specifically or with load.

Vestibular skills like

  • balancing without visual input
  • turning your head in the opposite direction to where your eyes are looking
  • moving the head on different axis at varying speeds with eyes open AND closed
  • moving your eyes when your head is still (visual input)
  • moving your head while your body is in motion

These all rely on the signal quality from the visual and vestibular systems and the signal integration of the information from these two systems. These two systems work together constantly and in orchestra. Disturbances in either system can drastically alter the signal quality and therefore the information your brain is relying on to orient you in your enviroment.

Orientation of your head and therefore your body in sport is pretty important. The information you receive has to be correct for you to be correct in your positioning. Without training these tiny skills how well can you rely on the bigger skills?

Think of the visual and vestibular systems as the foundation that the bigger movements are built on. They provide the blueprint information your brain needs to mobilise you in your environment. The more accurate the information your brain receives, the more accurate, efficient , powerful and fast your movements can be.

The correct application of the understanding of neuro-plasticity into training models can create perfect, seamless integration of the neural hierarchy and therefore enhance,

  • motor control
  • balance control
  • sensory motor function
  • stability
  • force production
  • neural drive
  • cognition and decision making

“Although talent feels and looks predestined, in fact we have a good deal of control over what skills we develop, and we have more potential than we might ever presume to guess.”

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