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The Science of High Performance in Sport

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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.

david_hamilton
After completing his PhD, David worked for 4 years in the pharmaceutical industry developing drugs for cardiovascular disease and cancer. During this time he also served as an athletics coach and manager of one of the UK’s largest athletics clubs, leading them to three successive UK finals. Upon leaving the pharmaceutical industry, David co-founded the international relief charity Spirit Aid Foundation and served as a director for 2 years.
Now a bestselling author of 6 books published by Hay House, he offers talks and workshops that fuse science, the mind, and spiritual wisdom. David writes a regular blog for the Huffington Post.
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