This is part three of the series in which I will be sharing my notes and experiences from this years BSMPG seminar in Boston, USA. In part one I talked about Professor Robert Sapolsky’s keynote presentation on the human stress response. Part two was all about Dr James Anderson’s presentation on the diaphragm’s influence on sporting movement. In this instalment I will be tackling Professor Vincent Walsh’s presentation on challenge presented to the human brain by sport.
Presentation 3: Professor Vincent Walsh
Professor Vincent Walsh is a brain scientist working with University College London and the Glaxo Smithkline performance lab in West London. His presentation focussed on identifying the brain characteristics of elite performers, classifying decision making types and proposing interventions to improve sporting performance.
- Sport is the biggest challenge to the brain. We have been able to develop robots that can beat the best chess players in the world for 20 years. We aren’t even close to developing robots capable of playing sport.
- Expert performers show two primary brain differences compared to novice performers. 1) Greater cortical thickness (grey matter) 2) Greater connectivity between areas of the brain (white matter).
- Learning leads to increases in both adaptations. Cortical thickness increases up to around 15-20 years of age, then the main learning adaptation in our 30s, 40s and 50s comes from increased connection between areas of the brain. Learning is a lifelong process.
- Hebbian learning- the development of connection between two areas of the brain- can be just as bad as it is good. If we make shitty decisions or perform exercises with incorrect technique, every rep strengthens the connection, which makes it even harder to undo. 1000 good reps cannot undo the work of 100 bad reps.
- Logic tells us that the biggest cognitive difference between elite and non elite performers is decision making. However there is remarkably little language to describe the process of decision making.
- In a study of athletes and coaches where each was asked to identify what aspect of the skill that the athlete did well on, there was almost no agreement between the two. If the science of decision making is to move forward, we need better language to define the process.
- Studies measuring heart rate and galvanic skin response in card playing games show that the subconscious mind can work out a deck is stacked long before the conscious mind becomes aware. This suggests there is a lot of subconscious processing going on underpinning decision making.
- Different sports and different positions within sports lends themselves to different types of decision making. The three primary types of decision making his lab have identified are:
- Gun slinging tasks: reacting and making choices with limited time
- Chicken tasks: being able to safely push limits
- Poker playing tasks: developing strategies
- Potential applications of these decision making tasks: talent identification, more accurate measurement of decision making ability, development of tactics or strategies within sport to play to an oppositions decision making weaknesses.
- In his research on gender differences in decision making, Vincent found that low level psychological stress made men take riskier decisions, whereas women became more risk averse. When stress was high and chronic both genders become more risk averse.
- Vincent’s group has also looked at differences between elite athletes from various sports and individuals from general population. There was no difference between the groups in an unfatigued state. However the athletes performance was far better in the presence of physical fatigue, whilst the regular people dropped off a cliff.
- Some ways they have been experimenting with adding stress during decision making to enhance sporting performance: requiring an additional form of information processing throughout the task e.g. listening to a speech or performing mental arithmetic, adding noise and other forms of distraction.
- In team sports may be an application of looking at the compatibility between decision making preferences for individuals in key positions in the rugby field e.g. between a flyhalf and scrum half. There may also be an application for between coach and athlete in individual sports.
- At the elite level of sport be wary of using group statements from research to inform your decisions with individual athletes. By definition they are outliers so we cannot blindly apply averages to them. On average everyone has one testicle and one breast… that is the danger of thinking in averages! Elite sport needs to be more about what works for each athlete.
Some bonus points from Vincent’s research on sleep:
- Science confirms it: good ideas happen when you are mentally switched off. For solving complex problems it is important to give yourself time away from the task and also to sleep.
- The evidence is unequivocal: if you want to live longer, nap. The people who nap most consistently have the lowest death rate.
Lessons I took away from the presentation
This was a very promising presentation. It definitely piqued my interest as I am aware that we as coaches (both physical prep and technical) need to do a better job at identifying and developing the players which the necessary decision making skills to excel under pressure. I got the sense that this is the tip of the iceberg given that we are only just at the stage where we can consistently describe what kind of decisions an athlete will make in sport.
It also reaffirmed the need for putting technique first before everything else in the gym. If we put load on the bar before the athlete is ready, not only are we increasing the risk for injury but we are also making work for ourselves in undoing bad habits down the line.