What is the cognitive process of elite athletes working at their peak? In this article, researcher Dr. Laurie Rauch discusses the various levels of thought, conscious and subconscious, behind human movement in sport.
An athlete’s movement on the sports field is largely an automatic process that is coordinated subconsciously. The only voluntary part of movement is its intended goal (Rauch et al. 2013); the movement itself essentially consists of a chain of reflexes (Evarts 1980), (Lacquaniti et al. 2012). Indeed, thinking or reasoning about how to execute a movement would only hamper performance.
Recent advances in brain imaging – coupled with vast resources of animal behaviour and human brain disorder research – allow researchers a view inside the working brain; though brain imaging during peak athletic performance is not yet possible. One way to partially overcome this difficulty is via indirect measurements of an athlete’s brain activations during movement execution. Two such indirect brain measurements are the motor outputs of 1) the autonomic nervous system (ANS) and the behavioural outputs of 2) central pattern generators (CPGs).
Note that both the ANS and CPGs are predominantly controlled by the reptilian brain, or R-brain. As the name suggests, the R-brain is complex enough to keep primitive vertebrates, like sharks, amphibians and reptiles alive and thriving in a dangerous world without needing to think. Apart from having an R-brain, humans also have a Thinking brain that enables us to perform optimally in our day jobs; to anticipate the future; to build the life we desire for ourselves. It is in charge of putting in place those things that make for a successful life.
When it comes to peak sporting performance, though, the successful athlete has to tap into their R-brain while keeping their Thinking brain in a state of heightened awareness. The Thinking brain’s main involvement with movement is that of an ‘observer’. Athletes routinely practice a superfluity of movement patterns – mimicking what may be required during competition – until such movements are performed subconsciously (Pisani et al. 2005). This enables world-class athletes to move at speeds that seemingly defy the laws of nature, often under extremes of pressure.
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