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How The Brain Really Works
Neuroscience suggests we need to significantly update how we train our athletes
What you've (likely) been taught about brain mechanisms is wrong.
Brains don't have separate "emotional" parts and "logical" parts.
The left side isn't separate from the right.
It turns out that brains don't read and react. Brains predict.
And the best coaches will harness that power for good, starting with effective training.
Our brains evolved to keep us alive. And the way they can best serve this function is by managing our body's energy efficiency.
This is called allostasis.
The brain's job is to run your body's energy bank account. And the best way to do that is to plan (read: predict).
Your brain manages your body's energy by actively trying to predict what will happen next. From a survival standpoint it makes more sense to predict a rustle in the bushes is a hungry tiger — and thus activate the energetic resources necessary to run away — than it does to wait around and confirm whether or not the rustle truly is a tiger.
The delay would lead to certain death.
We aren't really dealing with tigers anymore, but the same prediction mechanism that kept us alive around large animals is hard at work in modern circumstances, particularly those that we often encounter in sport: social situations, novel situations, and under unique pressure.
From your brain's perspective, ambiguity and uncertainty are taxing — unpredictability is inherent in those circumstances, after all — and trying to generate the knowledge necessary to make efficient predictions is also pretty taxing.
Your brain tries to sort through uncertainty by generating possible scenarios and trying to match the scenario to the circumstance.
To illustrate, imagine a difficult conversation you've had with a loved one. Take yourself back to high school or college, when you got a text or a phone call from someone that just said, "we need to talk."
For most people, this simple message leads to a full-scale physiological shift. Your heart starts racing, your palms get sweaty, your vision blurs, and your brain starts imagining possibilities based on past experiences with the words "we need to talk."
Your brain then pairs those experiences with the current circumstances of the relationship, and your current energy resources (this conversation might be better had when both parties are recharged versus after a long flight, for example).
This shift is your body's prediction mechanism at work. Your brain has activated the same resources it activated to flee the tiger — it's enhanced your energy to prepare to deal with an ambiguous, potentially painful situation. By effectively predicting what might happen, your brain ensures you are ready. Remember, better to be safe than sorry.
Prediction in sport
Dr. Lisa Feldman Barrett has done tremendous work on predictive processing and notes that the two most taxing things for a brain are exercising and learning something new.
That means sport is taxing. Practice and competitions require both exercising and learning. A lot.
Appreciating the cognitive demands and energy demands of sport from a brain metabolism perspective might help us have a little more compassion for the athlete struggling to learn something new. It turns out, learning a new skill is hard, no matter how good of a teacher you are.
And it gets even harder when the training isn't structured to help you learn efficiently.
How learning really happens
One mechanism underlying the predictive brain is called statistical learning. Essentially, the brain aggregates experiences over time and uses the average of those experiences to generate effective predictions in the current circumstances. As a limited analogy, you can think of this like your brain using a base rate to help operate in the current circumstances.
Now, think about the typical blocked practice. Players move from period to period, station to station, repeating the same skills over and over for a set amount of time. Rarely, if ever, will the constraints or demands change.
Your players are learning how to execute a skill, but only in one very narrow circumstance. This is part of the reason that form drills in practice have limited transfer to games — the constraints change, so the form changes. Not because the athlete hasn't learned the form from the drill, but because the athlete doesn't have a working model for the form in these circumstances.
So, training that fails to introduce variability is training that's failing to maximize your athlete's learning. Overly repetitive practice isn't introducing enough range for your athletes to learn all the possible scenarios where they may need to execute a certain skill. Their ability to execute that skill is likely to be limited and inflexible, tied closely to contextual circumstances that look a lot like what they see in practice.
This is why differential learning might be the gold standard of physical training.
Although it's more taxing, additional variability in training makes the brain work harder to adapt - but introduces more possibilities for the brain to effectively predict in the future.
In short, more variability, games, adjusted constraints, and novelty are going to increase the prior experiences your athletes have to draw on when it comes time to execute. Thus, they're more likely to predict right.
Unfortunately, many coaches don't want to deal with the short-term drawbacks of this approach. Namely: an increase in errors. It can be uncomfortable to watch players struggle or feel like an indictment on coaching for them to not get it right.
Predictive processing tells us to let them struggle. They'll be more likely to get it right in the future.
Are your practices structured to help maximize your players' learning?
How can you make your practice environment more predictable?
Are there other elements in your environment that fail to account for the brain as a prediction machine?