Modern training - reshaping athlete’s brain
It is well known that athletes are faster, stronger and more agile than non-athletes. Something different happens in the brain of an athlete.
Neuroplasticity replaced the belief that our brains are static - it refers to brain’s ability to change throughout life. Plasticity is shown in numerous studies with pianists. The more they practiced the piano, the more their brain (motor cortex) changed.
Different parts of the brain experience these changes when the person is practicing or playing. It shows the limitless capacity of the human brain for learning and adaptation. For elite tennis players, playing with their dominant hand is different from playing with the other hand. This suggests an increase in the activation of the motor map connections when playing with the dominant hand and deactivation of connections in their non-dominant hand due to the fact that it is not relevant. One reason is a process that ensures the activation of appropriate muscles in the right order at the right time. One of the best tennis players in the world, Rafael Nadal, grew up in a sports family- his uncle Miguel Angel Nadal was a professional football player who competed at the World Championship in 2002 and played for FC Barcelona.
Rafael began playing tennis at the age of four, led by another uncle, Toni Nadal, who has remained his coach at the professional level. In his early years, Nadal (who wrote with his right hand) was playing tennis with his left hand but used both hands for forehand and backhand.
Nadal is left-handed only when he is playing tennis, for everything else his dominant hand is right hand. When he was 12 years old his uncle encouraged him to adopt a more conventional left-handed style. Nadal struggled with his two-handed backhand but switched to what became his specialty and that is one-handed forehand, which led his game to higher levels.
The study of brain plasticity, also known as neuroplasticity, shows that our brains can be renewed daily if we are engaged in some encouraging, inspiring and meaningful tasks. These are encouraging news because it means that brain can be rejuvenated at any age.
The more we practice – the better we get, that cannot be disputed. But that does not mean it is not worth considering. The link between practicing some skills and improving the same skills as a result of practicing is a concept that is so natural, intuitive and understood that we often do not appreciate the fascinating mechanics behind the process of acquiring skills.
At a basic level, learning new skills or improve existing skills involves changes in the brain. There are several different ways in which our brain adapts to new skills and to the changes of the environment. The first involves "re-wiring" the network of neurons in the brain. Each skill or action that athlete performs include activation of neural pathways.
For example: plastic brain is like a snow hill in winter. Aspects of that hill - slope, rocks, snow height - are like our genes, given. When we are descending and we are managing the sledge, we will end up at the bottom of the hill by following a certain way although the hill itself will also affect the activity. It is hard to predict where we will end up because there are so many factors involved. What will happen next time when you descend is that you will probably come across the road that you were using the first time. It will not be that same way, but it will be closer to that way in one way or another. And if you spend all afternoon sledging down or walking, eventually you’ll have some paths that are used a lot and some that have been used less.
Every action that we have taken, every new skill that we have adopted, includes confirmation and improvement of neural pathways. We are the ones who make real changes in our brain. And our brains are very efficient and quick in changing and adapting to the training.
We can conclude that our brain is ‘malleable’ and it changes with training. This is an interesting concept that should be kept in mind, especially with regard to sport and athletic performance. It is natural to think of training in terms of muscle, body and physical abilities. However, any new skill that the athlete acquires is also accompanied by neural changes that can be harder to see, but they are equally important.
It has been shown recently that the cognitive training via video simulation leads to a significant impact on the perception, motor skills and awareness.