Sean Van Staden
Columnist
3 minute read
3 May 2014
11:30 am

How you can become a smarter athlete

Sean Van Staden

To the outside world, athletes must seem as boring as listening to your friends talk for hours about football with no desire for other intellectual stimulation.

Sean van Staden

Athletes either talk about how much they trained, what they have benched-pressed or what protein shake is the latest and greatest. I am sure this is not done consciously, but more from an innate desire to want to get the edge. The edge could mean a starting position in the team, a bigger contract, or fame. It’s a human trait to want to push the boundaries, but instead of thinking you need to be a brick of muscle, why not look at getting the edge through actually becoming smarter?

OK, stop laughing if you are not an athlete and you are reading this article. Yes, athletes can be intelligent and yes, some of them are smart; I did the same…

What happens if you could train your brain to be smarter, make better calculated decisions, have clearer vision, speed of thought and more focused attention in your game?

The more critical question you should be asking yourself is why athletes spend little or no time training their brains? Is it something you can train? Well, with over 50 million online users and growing, Lumosity seems to believe it is possible, simply by strengthening your neural connections within the brain.

When you are a child, your brain is like a sponge and absorbs everything in small amounts. Inside a child’s brain, new neural pathways are being formed and strengthened as continuous stimulus bombards the neural networks. Over time, these networks become literally thicker and more efficient. Once a child reaches adulthood, it was once believed you were left with only what you had developed.

If a child learns to kick a ball through a tyre from a young age and repeats this behaviour correctly over the years, he is not only developing the physical muscles to kick through a tyre 30m away, but also developing the neural pathways which helps send and receive stimulus on how far away the object is, whether the object moving and if so at what speed.

There is a lot of information to process, and if you have a small neural network or performing a kick for the first time, you might not be so great. If you have a big neural network, you can push and process a lot more information, at a hell of a lot more speed, to make a more calculated and precise decision. This is where “speed of thought” comes from. Some athletes have an incredible ability to do the right thing at the right time and under intense pressure.

Research by Maguire et al, 2000 found that, after assessing London taxi drivers with a minimum of two years of navigational training around the city, some of these individuals had a bigger hippocampus. This is the area of the brain responsible for memory, emotion and autonomic nervous system.

What was more surprising was that the longer the taxi driver drove for in terms of years, the bigger the hippocampus got.

These drivers had developed superior road memory and navigational skills because their job required it. What would happen if you took the same approach to your sport? Just imagine what you could achieve if you trained your brain for sports-specific purposes.

Developing speed of thought, memory, flexibility, attention and the ability to problem solve in a game situation in a blink of an eye.

Lumosity and other brain training games start with an assessment to identify your strengths and weaknesses and then provide you with a fun, 15-minute-a-day training solution to improve.

There is more to being an athlete than just brawn, chiselled abs and good looks. Make time to train your brain because it is the biggest asset you have – and we all know what happens when you invest in a quality asset.

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