Who hasn’t experienced becoming completely “lost” in a book or movie? The brain’s ability to shut out other influences is astounding. It’s not the same as willing ourselves to focus on one thing. It is about the brain settling into a comfortable, less reactive place where it can perform a task at the optimum level.
It is the difference between a good performer and a great one. It’s a type of training more and more professional athletes are adding to their repertoire.
Say you’re attempting to shoot a basketball into a hoop. You think about your stance, remind yourself to flick your wrist on the release, imagine the arc of the ball as it swishes through the net. There’s a good chance that will happen. There’s also a chance it won’t.
Why? Because you’re in your head; thinking about what you need to do rather than letting muscle memory take over.
Muscle memory is a skill set gained through repetition – practice – of specific motor tasks, such as shooting that basket. These procedural memories are embedded in the subconscious. Like riding a bicycle, you never forget. You may wobble at first, but just getting back on the bike triggers the brain to access memories, and the rusty skill will quickly reach its previous proficiency.
Many athletes use a ritual to get themselves into the zone. At the free throw line, it’s not unusual for a player to bounce the ball a specific number of times. They probably take a deep, relaxing breath before shooting. That’s not superstition. They can’t really tune out the roar of the crowd. Those habits are signals that trigger the brain to relax, tune into the subconscious and let the reliability of muscle memory take over.
Anyone who has been there knows the zone feels like a magical place where you can do no wrong. It is almost like watching yourself perform. The uncertainties of the conscious state are taken out of the equation and replaced by well-practiced skills, and nothing else.
In theory, achieving this optimum state guarantees success every time. The key to that success is getting there, every time.
And success builds on itself, just as defeat breaks focus.
A few years back, the Portland Trail Blazers were in a bad place. Losing streaks fueled by bad breaks put their game in a tailspin. But were they just bad breaks? Game-winning, buzzer-beater shots, for sure. But plays that didn’t go off as planned? Players and coaches had enough self-awareness and perspective to realize they were suffering from a loss of focus.
The response was an unprecedented one. Their training facility in Tualatin, Oregon, on the outskirts of Portland near the Pacific Highway now boasts a brain room, and that’s where players head on a regular basis, including right after games, as part of recovery.
The process recognizes that stress deserves much of the blame for bad performance. Stress also impacts physical and mental health when it is not relieved. Win or lose, the unique state-of-mind coming out of a game demands more than just relaxing the body. It demands not just enough sleep, but quality sleep. Putting the brain into a more comfortable state assures essential, restorative sleep.
“Everybody knows about recovery after you work out, but many people don’t put the right emphasis on the most important part of recovery, which is sleep,” said Dr. Tim Royer, a neuropsychologist and founder of Neurocore Brain Performance Centers, based in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
He calls brain training “the next level in sports.” It includes getting in the right zone for the moment, by finding the brain’s “sweet spot” for a particular function.
At game time, that spot is in the higher brain frequencies. Afterwards, the brain needs to relax into the lower frequencies in order to rest and recover. That phase is what we typically call “winding down.” We all have ways of doing that we believe are effective, yet, our minds may still be spinning when we get into bed. Disrupted sleep will follow.
By optimizing the brain – the body’s command center – it follows that cardiovascular, respiratory and endocrine systems will also function at the maximized levels and be protected from the debilitating effects of physical and mental stress.
It’s easy to get #stressed on Mondays, so be sure to take a few deep breaths today! Repeated deep breaths will naturally bring your heart rate more in sync with your breath, causing your brain to release endorphins, which are chemicals that have a natural calming effect. pic.twitter.com/RHRk7GuUii
— Neurocore (@neurocore) April 16, 2018
For an NBA basketball player, that’s stress from 82 regular season games that Dr. Royer notes “dramatically compromises all the systems in the body.”
Dr. Chris Stackpole, Director of Player Health and Performance for the Trail Blazers, said having technology to “help train players’ brains to be in the zone more time than not is huge.”
The process is an updated take on proven biofeedback techniques. In the Brain Room, players sit in comfortable chairs, wearing headphones in front of video screens, where a film of their choosing plays. A few small electrodes monitor their brain waves, which in turn, control the playback. All they need to do is breathe and allow themselves to get lost in the movie, aka, focused and calm.
If the trainee starts to think about other things, the distinct electrical impulses will signal the DVD player to stop. The brain responds by refocusing in order to win the reward of the restarted movie. The pauses become nearly unnoticeable blips as the brain gets closer to optimization.
“In 30 minutes, we can do over 2,000 reinforcements to the brain so that your body and brain can recover at the highest level possible,” Dr. Royer said. “These elite athletes aren’t just good athletically, they’re also very strong mentally. And they’re going to perform no matter how much pressure you put them under. Why are they going to do that? Because they’re mentally prepared for that.”