The Science of High Performance in Sport

tennis player abstract

Whether you’re playing tennis, golf or even running the 100 metres, there are certain things you can do that can help you to achieve high performance.

Here’s 7 of the most important ones:

Practice

How good do you want to be? One of the most important things to know is that practice lays down neural pathways in the brain. Whether it’s a cross-court winner in tennis, an approach shot at golf or even the start in a 100 metres sprint, practice is key to laying down these pathways that make you improve at these movements.

Practice creates habits in the brain and therefore the muscles, which not only helps you improve but also means that your body will know what to do in those all-important moments when you only have a split second to think.

Mental practice

Almost every elite athlete does mental practice. Neuroscience research shows that the brain doesn’t distinguish real from imaginary. In one piece of research, the brains of volunteers carrying out repetitive movements over 5 days were compared with volunteers imagining the same movements. Amazingly, the new brain pathways were identical in both groups.

So, to harness this fact, visualise yourself doing your sport, but see yourself doing everything just right. Due to the feedback between the brain and the muscles, this ensures that your muscles also learn to work in the way you’re imagining.

You can also use mental practice to play shots you find especially difficult, thus speeding up the learning on the court, green, or track. One important thing to keep in mind with mental practice is that you’re not just necessarily imagining the winning result, but the physical movements you’re doing in creating that result.

Repetition is key

The 3 rules of physical and mental practice are: Repetition! Repetition! Repetition!

High performance requires well defined neural pathways in the brain that connect with the muscles. The only way to build such neural pathways is repetition of the movements. And remember, the brain doesn’t distinguish real from imaginary. Use mental practice as well as physical practice.

In one-to-one competitive sports, if someone repeatedly beats you with the same shot or manoeuvre, practice countering it repetitively – both on the field and in your mental practice. Repetition wires neural pathways and thus habits into the brain.

Doing it once or twice is unlikely to get your breakthrough, but doing it a few hundred times might make a real difference. Many people don’t get the breakthroughs they seek because they don’t realise how much repetition is required. It’s all about your mind and body learning what to do, and this occurs through repetitively laying down neural pathways in the brain.

Focus

Stay focused, especially at the higher levels of your sport. Loss of focus for even a moment can turn a game of tennis, leave you 2 or 3 shots to catch up in golf or mean the difference between a gold medal and fourth in a race. Focus is as much a key to building a habit of winning as is training your body.

A simple focus exercise when practicing is to give every shot your 100% attention. Keep your eye on the ball at all times. This is not just something you do in competition, but essential in practice so that mental focus becomes a habit.

Mindfulness practice also helps because it develops the prefrontal cortex of the brain, which is the front part of the brain, above your eyes, that controls concentration.

Relax

If a tennis ball is flying at you at over 200kph, tension will only slow your reaction time. Similarly, tension before an important golf shot will chop away some smoothness from the shot, introducing an error of a few to several metres. Tension in a race tightens muscles and slows speed of movement.

Practice being highly alert and focused, yet relaxed at the same time. Many people think these are things you do at different times – alert one moment and relaxed in another – but it is important that you learn to do them at the same time. Focused doesn’t mean grimacing and holding your eyes and muscles rigid.

Relaxing helps your trained neural pathways take over. If you’ve practiced enough then your wired habit should do the rest – i.e., your body knows what to do. A good tip is to practice conscious breaths several times a day in a variety of different conditions and contexts. It will help you stay relaxed, yet focused, regardless of what is happening around you.

Body language

How you hold and move your body affects your focus and how you feel. There’s what’s called a ‘bi-directional relationship’ between your brain and muscles. It’s why you smile when you’re happy and tense your muscles when you worry. People mostly think it just goes that one way – from the brain to the muscles – but it goes the other way too, from the muscles to the brain.

To harness this, practice holding and moving your body in a way that conveys self-belief and quiet confidence. Do it on the court, green or track, but also practice it all throughout the day as you go about your life. You’re looking to create a body language habit and wire it into the brain, and this requires repetition while you practice, compete, and throughout your daily life.

Will to win

A will to win can be that edge that makes the difference in the latter stages of any game, when one or two points or one or two centimetres make all the difference. A will to win helps maintain high focus but it also activates trained neural pathways that ensure that your body does what it needs to do to win.

Winning becomes a habit when you have a well-developed will to win.

 

About the author

david-headshotDr David Hamilton is author of 9 books, including ‘The 5 Side Effects of Kindness’, ‘How Your Mind Can Heal Your Body’, and ‘I Heart Me’. He is a former athletics coach and also a former scientist within the pharmaceutical industry. He left the latter to study the placebo effect and teach people how to harness the mind-body connection for health, wellness, and high performance in sport.

 

 

 

Placebo School logoCheck out my online course – Placebo School. It’s all about understanding and harnessing the mind-body connection.

Drugs Work Better if You Know You’re Getting Them

whisperImagine the scenario: There’s 2 patients. One is connected to a morphine drip while he’s reading a book and the other is being given a morphine injection by the doctor. They’re both given morphine at the exact same time. One is aware of it but the other isn’t.

You’d think they’d both need the same amount of the drug, wouldn’t you? Well, it turns out that how much they actually need depends on whether they know about the morphine or not.

On average, people receiving morphine for pain need about 12mg to get the painkilling effect. But that’s only if they don’t know they’re getting it. If it’s administered in full view, they don’t need nearly so much to get the same effect.

The same kind of thing has been shown with diazepam. People sometimes get diazepam for anxiety after an operation. It turns out that the diazepam only works if the patients know they’re receiving it. If they don’t know they’re getting it then it doesn’t work. Weird isn’t it?

The reason is that it’s all in your mind!

Chemistry will play itself out in exactly the same way a hundred times out of a hundred in a test tube. But once you put human consciousness in the test tube, in other words the test tube is technically the human body, the chemistry is swayed left or right, so to speak, depending on what’s going on in your mind, depending on what you believe.

It’s true. What we believe shifts chemistry in our brains and bodies. If a person is given a placebo instead of morphine, but believes that it’s morphine and therefore believes in the pain killing effect, their brain produces a natural version of morphine to carry out the job of giving them what they are expecting to happen, i.e. a reduction in pain. The natural versions are known as endogenous opiates.

So when a person is receiving morphine from the doctor, who is administering it in plain sight, their belief in what morphine does produces endogenous opiates. So because the endogenous opiates are there to provide part of the pain killing effect, the patient doesn’t actually need as much morphine.

Imagine what it could mean for medicine if we could harness the placebo effect like this.

Don’t forget the wisdom of the elderly

Senior man reading bookI often meet elderly people as I walk my dog, Oscar, in the morning. There was one truly lovely gentleman I met recently. He was getting out of his car and his son was helping him to the house.

Oscar wanted to say hello, as he does to almost everyone. I often have to hold him back because being a Labrador he does like to jump up on people. But the man was keen for Oscar to approach. Oscar loved him. His tail was wagging so fast!

We chatted about dogs and how much love they bring into a household. I told him how Oscar has changed my life and he smiled. He told me that he always had dogs – Labradors – but not nowadays. As we bid farewell, he took my hand in his and held it so sincerely as he wished me a happy life.

I felt deeply moved by his sincerity. I felt emotional walking away. I could have happily chatted for hours. Some people have that kind of effect on you.

In society, we tend to view elderly people as frail and always needing care. It made me wonder how we often forget that elderly people have had a lifetime of experiences that they can share with us, and a lifetime’s worth of wisdom that they can impart to us that can make our lives happier and more fulfilling.

There was one day, more than a decade ago, when I was chatting with an elderly gentleman named Jack. He was a regular in the bar that I tended in the west end of Glasgow, in Scotland. I worked there part-time while a few friends and I were setting up a new charity.

He would always come into the bar around 11am. He was in his late seventies and had fought in World War II. I had served him several times but never shared a conversation. I don’t remember how we got onto the subject but he told me a story that had changed his life decades earlier.

It was during the war and he had been separated from his company and found himself in a deserted town of bombed buildings. He hadn’t been there long when a company of German soldiers arrived. He hid inside one of the buildings because he knew he’d be killed if they found him. He was terrified, he told me, especially because the soldiers began to search the buildings. He said he was even scared to breathe because he could hear them so close.

He was shaking. He had never been so scared in his life. As he heard a soldier approach and enter the room where he was hiding – Jack was standing behind the door – he clutched his gun, but he couldn’t think straight.

Jack was too terrified to move or even speak, let alone raise his gun. If he had done so anyway, to defend himself, he would have certainly been killed by the other soldiers.

He approached me with his gun raised,” Jack told me. “He looked me in the eyes. He could see my fear. I couldn’t handle the terror any more… My body gave way. I wet myself, standing right there in front of him.”

Then the most unexpected thing happened,” Jack said.

He stared at me for a moment, squinted his eyes a little, then he gave me a compassionate smile and a gentle nod, turned his back, and walked away, signalling to the other soldiers that the building was clear.”

I’ve never forgotten that,” Jack told me. “It happened back in 1944 but it’s the thing I most remember about the war.

Jack told me that it made him a better person and he spent the rest of his life always taking opportunities life presented to him to help others. He was impressed that my friends and I were setting up a charity and wished me well. He reminded me that it’s the little things that count.

Yes, I think elderly people have a lot of wisdom; a lifetime’s worth. It’s our loss if we don’t allow them to share it with us.

 

Notes: The story of Jack in the war is reproduced from my book, ‘Why Kindness is Good for You‘, by David R Hamilton PhD

The Invisible Landscape

forest with overgrown train track running through

Go for a stroll along a path in the park and it will guide you around the landscape – around water, trees, and flower gardens. Your route is set by the outline the path takes as it meanders through the park.

We walk along invisible paths too; we just don’t know they’re there. Instead of our eyes following the outline of a path in the park, these invisible paths are connected to our minds and they gently (and sometimes forcefully) guide us to the left, to the right, to stop, to go backwards, and even to go round in a circle at times.

They are paths along a landscape of consciousness.

I don’t personally take the mainstream scientific view that consciousness is a side-effect of brain chemistry. I believe that consciousness is something fundamental to reality itself.

Looking inside the cells of our bodies reveals proteins, enzymes, hormones, DNA, and small organelles. Looking inside, say, a piece of DNA reveals atoms, which are approximately 0.00000001cm wide. But inside atoms, it’s a very different reality. Most people know of protons, neutrons and electrons and we get the idea that they are jammed together into a little ball. Actually, if a proton was the size of a tennis ball, an electron would be the size of a particle of dust and it would be approximately 1 kilometer away.

A proton lives around the 0.0000000000001 cm scale (10-15 metres – that’s 10 to the power of minus 15). The Large Hadron Collider at CERN can probe sizes a little smaller, but then there’s a major jump to the fabric of reality, known as the Planck scale, which sits at 10-35 metres.

No one knows for sure what’s actually there, but my instinct is that the fabric is consciousness itself. I’m led to that conclusion in two ways. The first is purely intuitively. That might not stand up to scientific reasoning, but then again, if you are trying to measure consciousness, then like it or not, your best tool is your own intuition.

The other way is more rational as it’s my interpretation of the general outcome of hundreds of experiments that demonstrate the correlations between the minds and brains of people separated by distances.

Take, for instance, the experiments where one member of a couple is placed inside an MRI scanner or connected to an EEG device. The other person is in another room and then, after a short time, the scientists startle him, perhaps by shining a light in his eyes. At that moment, the MRI or EEG detects a flash in the other partner’s brain.

If we remain wedded to the idea that consciousness is inside the head, a side-effect of brain chemistry, then we have to dismiss research like this as somehow flawed. There is a lot of it around so that would be a lot of quality scientists that we would have to cast aside as inferior or misguided researchers, which I’m not sure we can do.

What if, instead, we assumed the research is correct? We’re then led to the conclusion that consciousness is not inside the head after all, and can entertain the possibility that the brain is more like a sophisticated aerial that receives and processes consciousness. Damage to the aerial would affect a person’s mind, which is what we do in fact see in medical science.

So if it’s not inside the head, where is consciousness? I’d say it’s everywhere. The brain (aerial) gives us a way to focus it in our individual ways – me as David Hamilton, you as, well, you. Consciousness is a field that permeates all space, just as radio waves and your favorite TV programs are actually buzzing everywhere around you but are channeled through your radio, TV or computer. In effect, consciousness is smeared throughout the universe and emanates from the fabric of reality, where it is in its purest state.

But the fact that all reality emerges out of the fabric of reality leads us to an interesting thought that can explain the invisible paths in our lives. Looking around us we see physical structures and landscapes. There are structures from the largest (galaxies) to the smallest (atoms) scales. That these exist tells us that the fabric of reality has structure. And if the fabric of reality is pure consciousness then there are structures of consciousness in it, like a painted landscape.

Now we’re getting close to understanding the invisible paths in our lives. Just as we walk through physical landscapes, so there are landscapes of consciousness that we walk through as well. We just can’t see them. But they guide our journey through life – like intuitive whispers.

They take us to people who come into our lives for a ‘reason, a season, or a lifetime’. They also guide us to particular events that may or may not make sense to us at the time.

So maybe life isn’t so much the blank canvas (or landscape) that many of us assume. Perhaps there are deeper forces  – invisible paths of consciousness – at bay that govern the direction of our lives.

I have always believed in the idea of soul mates, that there are people who are important to us, who are meant to be in our lives. I am more convinced now than ever.

I was, myself, led to the idea of landscapes of consciousness while I was writing my book, ‘Is Your Life Mapped Out?: Unraveling the Mystery of Destiny vs Free Will’. I’m convinced, now, that I was guided along that particular path where I would receive those insights.

I often wonder if there is an ultimate path. I do believe that there is. It’s subtle, but its presence is seen everywhere. It is the path of love.

We are not forced to walk this path but, ohhhhh, it feels good when we do and so we walk it, then, out of choice.

Love is the path where destiny and free will meet. All of our choices are our own, but they are also inspired by the path.

You can get on the path at any moment. Just love those around you!

When receiving the Nobel Peace Prize, Mother Theresa was asked how we could best promote world peace.

She said, “Go home and love your family.”

For me, that about says it all.

 

You can read more of this idea and other aspects of destiny and free will in my book, ‘Is Your Life Mapped Out? Unraveling the mystery of destiny vs free will’ (UK paperback) (US paperback) (UK Kindle) (US Kindle)