Olympic Performance and Brain Development


The Olympic Games in London are drawing to a close this weekend and what a spectacle of human performance it has been!  From Michael Phelps amazing streak of wins in the pool to the high flying skills of the US women’s gymnastics team and the inspiring running of Oscar Pistorius, we are witnessing highly developed and finely tuned bodies in action.  We marvel at the level of technical skill, balance, coordination, stamina, and strength.  It truly is extraordinary.

Even those athletes who fail to medal are inspirational to watch because all of them are operating at a level of physical ability that most of us can only dream of reaching. Or are they?  Is their talent for running, or swimming, or tumbling something that is available only to a small number of gifted people?  Or are all of us potentially capable of performing at high levels of physical excellence?  If so, what does it take to get to the highest levels?

To answer those questions we need to look beneath the surface of the athletic performance because there is far more going on here than meets the eye.  What most people don’t realize is that for every one of these athletes, behind the scenes, there is a highly developed and finely tuned brain directing those bodies.  We have such a tendency to think of the brain only in terms of its cognitive or intellectual prowess.  This became very clear to me last year when my brother suffered a stroke that left him with significant motor problems while his cognitive abilities remained intact.  Despite the loss of motor function, which is only possible because of the brain, many people said to me that it was a relief to know that his brain wasn’t damaged!

Of course, there is a good reason for our focus on cognitive function.  In comparison with other mammals, our abilities to create, reflect, analyze and communicate are unmatched.  We can’t say the same thing about physical ability.  The elephant is stronger than the strongest human.  The cheetah, at 70 mph, can blow Usain Bolt’s doors in even though he won Olympic Gold in the 100m & 200m dashes in successive Olympic Games.  Bolt runs at about 23 mph so heck even the elephant can smoke him at 25 mph.  Point is when it comes to specific physical skills like speed and strength, we’re not so special.  So it is easy to take human mobility for granted.  What is beautiful about Olympic sports is that they spotlight the combination of human mobility with human cognition and the incredible level of brain development necessary to make those sports possible.

My father was a gymnast so I’ve long been a fan of Olympic gymnastics.  Many years ago I taught gymnastics to very young children.  The combination of coordination, balance, kinesthetic awareness, strength, speed, agility and flexibility needed to perform gymnastic routines is mind-boggling.  However, what I really appreciate about the sport is how it combines all of those physical attributes with extraordinary creativity.  Last week’s gold medal performance by Epke Zonderland (Netherlands) on the high bar is a stellar example of this.  It left the crowd gasping in awe and compelled his two closest competitors to embrace him in admiration.

This is brain development and organization at it’s highest level.  What all Olympic athletes have in common is that they are devoted to developing their brains.  Most likely, very few of them are even aware that this is what they are doing.  But that is the bottom line.  It all boils down to the basics of good brain development.  The use of function with increased frequency, intensity and duration results in increased dendrite growth, increased neural connections and increased production of myelin.  Translation?  Practice, practice, practice.  Try, fail, make corrections and try again.  This is neuroplasticity in action.  It creates the neural pathways required for learning new skills and cements those skills into memory.  Add in good coaching, passion, and motivation and the result is excellence.

So where does that leave the rest of us who are not Olympic athletes?  Well, surprisingly, provided that our brains are functioning well it leaves us in pretty good shape.  The truth is that each of us is capable of being his or her own Olympian.  What is required is that we use the function of mobility with sufficient frequency, intensity, and duration.  Get up and start moving!  Your brain will thank you for it!






One Response to Olympic Performance and Brain Development

  1. An inspiring woman, Jeanne Lieberman, would have shared your views, Charlie, and would have loved your article.
    « The human beings damage their health by not treating the Laws of Nature with proper respect and attentiveness”, she said.
    At age sixty-two, when most people are thinking to retire, she entered a Judo Club for the first time.
    Three years later, she was awarded the Black Belt. She followed her training in Martial Arts and, at age 72, she got a Black Belt in Aikido. At 80, she was awarded a Black Belt in Kung fu.
    In an interview with The National Enquirer, she said: “I want to show people they can learn anything at any age.”
    At 86, she worked 12 hours a day, gave speeches, continued practicing Martial Arts, taught Yoga and wrote an inspiring book about her life and philosophy.
    She said anyone could live a long, healthy life, if one stays active, optimistic, and continues to learn and move.
    She was born in 1890 and died in 1988. She was 98.

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