Sports Psychology is Underrated
Everybody has heard Henry Ford’s famous quote, "Whether you think you can or you think you can’t - you're right.” You have probably also heard the story of the little engine believing could go over the hill with it’s mantra of “I think I can, I think I can”. Have you considered there could actually be a scientific reason for why this works?
The brain wants to survive
The number one priority of your brain is to protect itself at all times. You are wired for self protection at all times, because if your brain doesn’t function your body dies. So above all else, the brain prioritizes it's own protection. Your brain knows what it does and doesn’t need regardless of your conscious awareness.
- Avoiding trauma
As you can see, running a marathon or lifting 300 pounds doesn’t appear on this list.
The brain subconsciously uses specific pathways including the sympathetic nervous system (the "fight or flight" system) to achieve these objectives. Two pathways that are relevant from an endurance and athletic performance perspective are the vagus and golgi nerve pathways.
The Vagus Nerve
The vagus nerve is actually part of our parasympathetic nervous system, which controls all organs except for the adrenal glands (part of the sympathetic nervous system). Specifically of interest for athletes, the vagus nerve lowers cardiac output. Ever wondered what actually controls maximum heart rate? That's the vagus nerve.
When the brain senses (or more importantly "believes") it is at risk - through, for example, decreased oxygen in the blood - it will decrease cardiac rate, essentially slowing us down so that more oxygen and blood glucose is available to the brain rather than the muscles. Basically, our brain slows us down whether we like it or not.
Interestingly, your brain will also produce serotonin when your body works hard. Fun fact: this "runner's high" isn’t actually meant as a reward; it is our brain's way of trying to relax us and be more lazy instead.
The golgi nerve controls the maximum contractional force of a muscle. Ever heard stories of people who never workout becoming trapped under a car and suddenly lift a ridiculously heavy engine block off their chest? They tear muscles doing it. When this happens, the brain’s fight or flight survival mechanism is overriding the golgi nerve. It’s good to know that you can actually temporarily become Superman if your life or someone you love’s life truly depended on it happening. Yes, our physical self’s are that powerful, so you should care more about what you allow into the temple
It is obvious how this applies to endurance sports. In simple terms, if our brain doesn't believe it can do something and thinks it is at risk, then it will slow us down and make us less powerful.
Overcoming Our Nervous System
So how do you overcome the parasympathetic nervous system? Is it as simple as just being like the Little Engine and saying, "I think I can"? Not really, but that doesn't hurt. Saying something doesn't mean you believe it, and frankly your brain has no reason to trust you. You need to convince your brain that it is safe.
Here are three tools you can use to retrain your brain and push past your current limits in order to become the best version of yourself:
- Push the limit past failure in a safe environment.Do interval-pace and repetition-pace reps. Hard anaerobic efforts that push the boundary serve to convince the brain that it can safely allow the heart to operate at a higher level. This retrains our vagus nerve.
- Do forced reps.Like the fake spotter, forcing reps with the help of a partner will also help placate the brain. In addition, negative reps, as well as over-speed work on the bike, on the treadmill, or in the pool all help convince the brain our muscles can work harder. This retrains our golgi nerve.
- Self-belief is a hard thing to truly do, so first try trusting someone else. One common trait among high performers in both business and sports is not a belief that they "can," but more of a lack of belief that they "can't." In other words, high performers don’t have a strong self-belief, but they have a distinct lack of self-doubt. They trust in the science and their belief is in the logic.
Trust your instincts/intuition, believe you can, and execute anything your heart desires with proper training and planning.
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