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Human Performance, Performance | Oct 3, 2016
Using neuroscience to get the right brain at the right time.

Sports coaches that take into consideration an athlete’s brain systems can customise their coaching strategies for optimal performance. Often an athlete’s natural stress systems can interfere with their ability to absorb training practices but neuroscientist Dr Dehra Harris of Washington University School of Medicine believes that a basic understanding of the stimuli that trigger those stress systems can help observant coaches to avoid those situations or enable an affected athlete to return to a more receptive state.

Dehra coaches medical students how to work in teams and communicate effectively during medical encounters and has developed a deeper understanding of how learners can best be instructed. Her work in improving their performance based on her understanding of their behaviour patterns is rooted in tailoring their training to optimise learning. In this edition of Performance Dehra explains how a coach can reach out to an athlete in a more effective manner.

When a Player Cannot Be Coached

We’ve all been there. It’s the moment when you are at your wit’s end talking with your most difficult player. You’ve spent the last hour trying everything you know to help them and when you look into their eyes you know nothing you are saying is going in. You may be yelling on the sidelines of a big game or trying to reason your way out of a breakdown in training, but the feeling is the same. You may even be thinking of letting them go.

Stress Systems Take Hold of an Athlete

What if you found out this moment has nothing to do with a player being difficult and instead represents a missed opportunity to work with your player’s natural brain systems rather than against them? Our brains are equipped with highly efficient stress systems, including a part of the brain called the amygdala. These stress response systems are wired to take in a small amount of information, check in with big, and potentially dangerous, memories and then deliver a quick response involving the whole body – all without ever taking the time to talk to your thinking brain. This is an incredibly helpful system, in a game such as rugby when you need a quick response to make a last ditch tackle on the line but it is not the system you want in charge when you are teaching a fly-half to see all the options on the field. There are times in any game, when what you want is quick default responses, and you are training very hard to get them.

 

Pittsburgh Steelers v Seattle Seahawks

 

However, situations such as the one above, where you feel like nothing is going in, are a signal that you and your player have a fundamental brain mismatch. You are coaching from the thinking part of your brain (your cortex), and you are being blocked by your player’s stress response (their amygdala). It’s not that they are inherently an un-coachable player, but that in this moment, and potentially many other moments like it, you are so far into their stress response, that you aren’t talking to the part of your athlete’s brain you could coach. The part of the brain you want them to be using isn’t the system that’s in charge. Once you learn to recognise the signs that the amygdala is in control, you can adapt your coaching strategies to your situation; allowing you to work with the limitations of your player’s current brain state and create opportunities for the stress system to reset, so the thinking brain can return.

 

“It’s not that they are inherently an un-coachable player, but that in this moment, and potentially many other moments like it, you are so far into their stress response, that you aren’t talking to the part of your athlete’s brain you could coach.”

 

Noticing the Signs

Typical early cues that someone is coming under the influence of their amygdala include: avoiding eye contact, pacing or moving away, appearing to not be listening, and missing obvious plays – all of which are attempts by the stress system to manage an overflow of information in a stressed out brain. At this point, it often helps to have the athlete change tasks to one they find mentally enjoyable or let them return to an engaging motor task away from triggering people, like throwing the ball with a favourite teammate. If you are in a game and can’t change the task, the most effective option is usually to try and give them space on the sideline, so they can regain their own focus without additional input.

If the stress continues to build, more advanced signs of amygdala triggering include: players rejecting any option you suggest, beginning to yell or escalate physically each time someone speaks, and ultimately the player no longer responding to you at all. If you still aren’t sure from their behaviour whether their amygdala is in charge, another reliable indicator is the one we started with, i.e. your coach’s sense that nothing is going in, and nothing you do will help. This is a sure sign that the brain has become over-stimulated. Once you see these late signs you are entering a phase where the brain’s stress response will likely need to be reset or you will want to alter your plans to play with the stresscontrolled brain you’ve got.

Learning to Open the Gate

In order to understand the brains’ needs for a reset, it helps to imagine that the amygdala functions like a gate – one, that once it shuts – it stops the thinking brain from being in charge. This is why you can’t reason with a toddler, or a player who is screaming on the sidelines. The part of the brain you want to talk to is locked behind that gate. On average, if you remove the player from a triggering situation, it takes around 20 minutes to reopen this part of the brain. In fact, the timing is so reliable, you can often set a timer to check how long you have left before you can talk to the thinking brain again. It’s that common. Knowing how long it takes also helps coaches not to feel like the current emotional storm is an endless response. After 20 minutes, you can go back to an easier task and reassess their capacity for stress.

 

“It often helps to have the athlete change tasks to one they find mentally enjoyable or let them return to an engaging motor task away from triggering people, like throwing the ball with a favourite teammate. If you are in a game and can’t change the task, the most effective option is usually to try and give them space on the sideline, so they can regain their own focus without additional input.”

 

One often underappreciated benefit of giving players time away from their teammates is that amygdalas often fire together. Meaning, once someone yells at us, we often experience an amygdala trigger of our own, and soon no one is using their cortex. Once a player has entered into a stress response, they can easily trigger multiple people around them, including their coach. Sometimes taking a lap, is the best chance you have of keeping everyone calm so they can efficiently return to using the rational parts of their brain. If either the coach or the player begins the escalating pattern of trying to have the last word, you will likely end up retriggering the gate to close, causing an additive stress scenario where an athlete can need several hours to fully calm down. Similar to a climbing expedition that never returns to base, each time you re-trigger the system, you continue to escalate the reaction from the point of the last trigger. Making it important to fully allow the stress response to subside before resuming previous tasks or talking about the events that triggered it.

Making Training More Stress Savvy

In non-pressured situations, you can use an individual player’s stress patterns to inform their training schedule. While it is true, that each player’s stress-triggers will be unique, they are often highly consistent for that player over time, and thus can be easily incorporated into their routine. By keeping a simple list of past triggers you can make future training more stress savvy. There is evidence that age, life experience and genetics can play a role in individual player’s having different set points, with some player’s stress systems firing easier than others. While some individuals can improve their overall stress tolerance, coaches must recognize who is at risk for frequent triggers and make the appropriate adjustments to their training.

Susceptible Youth

A common group that is at risk of significant stress responses includes young players who may not have had time to fully develop cortical control. The cortex first starts to come online around 10 years of age, but it continues developing into the 30s, so even athletes in their 20s may struggle coming back from stressful experiences. Additional vulnerability can be seen in players with histories of trauma, players with limited experience in competition, or self-critical players with a recent perceived failure. Each of these factors can make player’s stress-system trigger more quickly as well as making them more susceptible to entering negative thinking patterns once the process begins.

 

Golden State Warriors v Dallas Mavericks

 

Switching Training Tasks

As soon as you notice the early signs of stress in the training environment, you can easily switch tasks to ones that still accomplish larger goals for fitness, such as practising a non-primary stroke in swimming or you can initiate micro-breaks where players engage with a mental task they enjoy. Once the athlete no longer shows signs of amygdala activation, they can be given the opportunity to return to the primary training goal. If the stress response reinitiates as soon as they resume the task or if you have tried everything and they still seem to trigger each time you talk, wait for another day to train on the triggering task or do less intense aspects of practice.

At the end of the day, you can only control one brain in any interaction – your own. Whether it is players who quit every time they have to learn something they don’t immediately master or players who get so wrapped up in a failure they can’t move past a loss, there are techniques you can use that work with their brain’s innate mechanics. Everyone experiences days where they wish their player used a different part of their brain or even wish they had a different player, but you can’t immediately change how a person is wired, or alter what triggers them to enter a stressed state. The coaches who bring out the best in their players work with the brain’s natural systems and find ways to pick the optimal strategy for a given moment, based upon the athlete they actually have in front of them and the goal they want to achieve.


 

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