The Physiology of Champions
The remarkable nervous system of a high performing athlete
What takes the conscious brain minutes to solve, Steph Curry's brain solves in fractions of a second
The difference between a regular professional athlete and the best in the world may come down to synaptic connections I've always had a fascination with sports, especially when watching the greatest athletes perform on the biggest stage. Growing up as a kid in the 90's, it was amazing to watch guys like Michael Jordan jump over 7 foot giants for an earth shattering dunk, or to see Barry Sanders run into a pile of 11 gladiators and come out the other side without being touched. These outrageous feats of athleticism give us this childhood sense that regular humans can do superhuman things. Part of what drew me to chiropractic is the evolving science of human performance. How do we get the most out of the human body? What are the things that separate the average fan from a professional athlete from an elite athlete? Two of the most obvious traits are strength and their speed. Just look at things like the NFL combine. The numbers that all of the fans care about are the 40-yard dash and the bench press. Strength and speed are certainly game changing characteristics of an elite athlete, but today I wanted to talk about something that I think is highly undervalued in the world of sports.
The Magic of Immaculate Body Control One of the things that impresses me most in an athlete today is the ability of the athlete to make their body do whatever they want on command. Not only can their bodies take on these incredible shapes, but it can also make almost instantaneous changes at high speeds. Just look at that gif of Barry Sanders. His ability to see what's in front of him, and to spin, pivot, and contort his body to reduce the impact of an impending tackle is unbelievable. It's even more remarkable when you realize that his brain has to read, anticipate, and plan a series of movements that require extreme precision in the direction and magnitude of contraction to achieve success. This takes an unbelievable amount of control over the muscular system by the brain. It's a big part of neurophysiology known as neuromuscular control. Without getting into the details of neurophysiology, all you need to know is this. People with great neuromuscular control can make their bodies do whatever they want exactly when they desire. It's often times the trait that you see in people that can not only play, but excel in multiple sports. It's that person who is going to college to play football, but if you put him on the basketball court for the first time, he looks like he's been playing for years. It's also that person who steps into a Crossfit gym for the first time, and they look like they've done the snatch and clean and jerk for years. The reason this is important for our understanding is because this high level of body control is an important indicator of the health of the brain and nervous system. Beyond the chiseled frames and explosive power of an athlete's muscular system is the ridiculous efficiency at which their brain is operating.
Steph Curry's Brain and Basketball Calculus So how ridiculous is the human brain? It allows people who cannot consciously solve a math problem to perform the calculation instantaneously by the neuromuscular system. Let's look at a routine 3-point shot for example. How many people could legitimately figure out the force, trajectory, and angle necessary to make the shot? Even if you had all of the necessary variables? Even if you were really good at math, it would still take a minute to do the calculations. And yet, the brain of a high level basketball player can perform this calculation instantaneously, even if they don't know the actual numbers at a conscious level. But that shot is just for a routine three point shot without anyone defending or rushing him to shoot. A guy like Steph Curry isn't facing a defenseless basket. He often has 1 or 2 enormous men doing everything they can to alter or rush his shot. Within fractions of a second, Steph's brain has to recalculate the trajectory of his normal 3-point shot to accommodate for a moving, 11-foot obstacle jumping to get into his way. The amazing thing about this is that it doesn't have anything to do with crazy strength or speed. It's the years of repetition and practice coupled with Steph's ability to form effective synaptic connections that allow him to be unbelievably efficient with his shot. It's an invisible skill set born out of lots and lots of practice! Every time he shoots a basketball and he watches it go in, he gets a strong dose of dopamine flooding his brain to reward that pathway and build more connections in his brain. Dopamine makes you feel good, and it creates a desire to make more connections to reproduce that feeling. He's been performing this skill millions of times through the course of his young life from all over the court. His brain uses his eyes to tell him exactly where he is on the court, and his body knows exactly how much force to generate given the information coming through his eyes from taking a million shots and making them. It's not like dunking a basketball or lifting a gigantic weight over your head where you KNOW that you don't have the physical gifts to do that. Steph's game is derived from the efficiency of his nervous system, which makes you feel like that you could do it too!
It's All About the synapses When we look at the prototype athletes for a professional sport, you'll probably notice that most look pretty similar in their physical measurables. Once you get to the most elite level of a sport, everyone is fast, everyone is strong, and everyone has a pretty similar athletic frame. When all other factors are similar, the differentiating factor may be how much body control that athlete has.
When everyone in the league throws 93 mph on a baseball field, it's the pitcher that has enough control to hit the outside corner 90% of the time without missing that becomes an all-star.When everyone is running a 4.4 40-yard dash, it's the receiver that can control his fingers enough to snatch a ball with one outstretched hand that becomes a superstar.When everyone can clean and jerk 320 lbs, it's the Crossfitter that has enough control over his trunk to handstand walk 200 ft unbroken that becomes a champion. When everyone in your class has the same level of strength and speed, then neuromuscular control, and more importantly, control under pressure becomes the attribute that defines an athlete's legacy. If neuromuscular control is a critical part of an athlete's skill set, then we have to help the athlete build synapses in their brain that support the activity that they are looking to excel in.
How Do You Build Better Body Control
Midline Control - Core strength isn't about six pack abs. It's about the ability to generate and transfer energy through the center of your body so it moves efficiently through your arms and legs. Midline control begins with healthy structure and strength of the spine. Just the simple act getting normal structural positioning of the head, neck, and pelvis can improve power, strength, and control for the entire body.
Repetition, repetition, repetition - It's the least sexy answer of all time, but the most important. Practice builds connections in the brain. When your brain does a particular task over and over again, it builds and strengthens synaptic connections to reinforce that task. That's why things feel clumsy and awkward when you first learn to do something, but it gets to the point where it feels automatic after hundreds or thousands of repetitions.
Graded Increases in Difficulty -Here is where most people stop getting better, and where you see the most elite athletes start to push the barrier. Whatever you are doing to train in your sport, you have to add wrinkles to slowly make it more difficult. It goes along with the reason that P90X coined the term "muscle confusion". It serves a bigger purpose than just helping to burn fat. It helps build new brain connections. This is especially true when it comes to balance and coordination skills.Now this DOESN'T mean that if you can barely stand on 2 feet that you should start standing on one foot with a balance beam. That would be silly and potentially harmful. It means that at whatever skill level you are currently at, find a way to make it a little bit more difficult. This is where doing single leg variations of specific exercises can help improve balance and coordination. Doing things on one leg requires more body control than doing things on two legs. Having a strong deadlift is great, but for a basketball player, doing a straight, single-leg deadlift can challenge an athlete in unique ways. If you want to increase your sense of body control, then you have to practice doing new and challenging movements, and practice them until they feel routine.
Champions Build Better Brains When we think about the best performers in the world, we often think about how they have been gifted exceptional strength and endurance than their fellow competitors. They were just born with something that the rest of the field doesn't have.
While it's true that many athletes hit the genetic lottery, it's not simply their raw strength and speed that makes them greater than their competition. It might be the brain and the efficiency of neurological firing that can make the difference when all other skills are equal. When the right applications of training and recovery are made, the small 1-2% improvements in efficiency of the nervous system can be the difference between making a game saving interception in the Superbowl or giving up the game winning touchdown. The Physiology of Champions is about training their nervous system in a way that the tiny difference in neuromuscular efficiency can give the extra little edge in the biggest moments. That when strength and speed are at a draw, that it is the athlete whose movements are more efficient and not wasting energy that avoids 4th quarter fatigue that wins. That the athlete who trained hours on a balance board is able to keep their body square for the off balance 3-point shot who can win the game. That the receiver who is so in tune with the positioning of his body is the one that can catch a football on his helmet to save the game.