The neurobiology of sports performance

Now that we’re almost through the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, we have witnessed several examples of athletes excelling and underperforming. How an athlete responds to a high pressure situation could give interesting clues into the underlying neurobiology and evolutionary history of the brain. The brain has to operate under trade-offs. There is what Stephen Grossberg calls the plasticity-stability trade-off, where a system that learns must decide when to learn and when not to learn since learning involves overwriting previously learned patterns.   There is also the question of how much cognitive control should be exercised.  People talk about just letting their “muscle memory” takeover and go on “instinct” but what does that really mean neurobiologically?  Recent research has shown that a movement resulting from a reaction is faster than one from an intention.  These experiments found that people could hit buttons faster when they reacted to someone rather than when they initiated which  shows that more cognitive control can make you slower.

I think it is quite clear that some athletes rise to the occasion under high pressure situations while others wilt.  The question is why is there such variability.   Naively, it would seem that always performing under pressure should be a good thing.  The answer must be that rising to the occasion is not always optimal in an evolutionary sense.  Let’s imagine in paleolithic times that you’re in a stressful situation where you’re trying to catch your dinner or are running away from something that wants you for dinner.  That would be an analogous situation to a high pressure athletic event.  I think that there is not always an optimal strategy.  In some instances, you would want to simply run as fast as you can and being able to reach top performance would be helpful.  In other instances, it may be better to hesitate and come up with a plan before acting.

In addition to the amount of cognitive control that is exercised, I think learning while performing may also play a role in sports since not all situations will be identical.  In each event, you may want to do a small amount of adjusting or learning to adapt to the situation.    The current thinking is that the brain can increase the learning rate depending on whether it perceives errors.  So suppose an athlete is playing some sport and they start to make errors, like missing the target in the shooting segment of the biathalon.  Then it would be good to start adapting and updating synaptic weights in the brain.  However, if you update too much you may put yourself outside of the performance range and in essence temporarily forget how to shoot.  I think a “clutch” performer is one that can make minor adjustments during competition while a “choker” is one that over adjusts.

Now this brings me to what I’m really concerned about.  Canada, my home and native land,  has hosted two previous Olympics and has  under achieved in both.  The Olympic organizing committee wanted to change that this time and developed an “Own the Podium” program to try to win the most medals for the 2010 games.  Thus far, Canada is below expectations in the total medal count although it is actually slightly above pace in the number of gold medals won.  One of the things the program did, which has been highly criticized, was to limit access to the bobsled/luge/skeleton, skiing and speed skating venues for non-Canadian athletes to give Canadians an advantage.  Interestingly, these are the sports where Canada has most underperformed  but has also overachieved.  I think the perception of an advantage by the athletes increased their expectations which then increased neural plasticity, which took them out of the optimal zone, when they felt they were not meeting the expectations.  Hence,  while some athletes, like our women bobsledders, took advantage of the increased knowledge from the extra practice,  others, like our men’s ski team, let the pressure get to them.

I think what we should have done instead was to call the program “Level the playing field”.  Instead of increasing the expectations for medals, we should have stressed that we were correcting for a historical disadvantage.  In this way, our athletes would have had the confidence that they could win without the pressure to win.  We know that performance enhancing hormones like testosterone can increase with confidence and success.  We can also  try to predict how one will act in pressure situations ahead of time with cognitive tests.  If it is known that you have a tendency to use too much cognitive control or are too neurally plastic when the pressure is on, you might be able to train to modify the response.  It may also be that people who learn quickly are also the ones that tend to overcompensate during competition.  So, in situations where a country is new to a sport, the athletes they select will generally be the ones who learn the sport the quickest.  However, these people may also be the ones that are more likely to succumb to pressure.  Although the field of sports psychology has been around for a long time, I think it will be greatly facilitated by knowledge from neurobiology.

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