Mental Preparation of High-Level Athletes by Kayt Sukel

brain conditioning

Baseball Hall of Famer Yogi Berra is credited with saying that “90 percent of the game is half mental.” Over the years, the line has been appropriated beyond the world of baseball to explain the importance of factors like focus and motivation to all high-level athletic performance. Shannon Miller, an Olympic Gold Medalist in gymnastics, agrees that mental preparation is key to success—and she says she couldn’t have gotten to the Olympics on physical ability alone. “The physical aspect of the sport can only take you so far. The mental aspect has to kick in, especially when you’re talking about the best of the best,” she says. “In the Olympic games, everyone is talented. Everyone trains hard. Everyone does the work. What separates the gold medalists from the silver medalists is simply the mental game.”

For the past few decades, sports psychologists have studied the psychological factors that affect athletes—from beginners taking part in their first team sports to elite athletes at the top of their field. Today, neuroscientists are getting into the mix and attempting to understand the brain’s role in that mental game.

“When you are an elite athlete, one of the best in the world, the physical differences between you and your peers are very, very small.” says Scott Grafton, a researcher at the University of California, Santa Barbara and a Dana Foundation grantee, who studies action representation, or how the brain organizes movement into a goal-oriented action. “So what really determines success? The way athletes are approaching their sport at the cognitive level.”

Let the Body Do the Work

Leading up to the 1996 Olympic Games, Miller and “Magnificent Seven” teammate Dominique Moceanu practiced six to eight hours a day, six days a week. Even on days of competition, Miller says she would practice her routines up to ten times before performing for the judges. “We did a lot of repetitions. It was important to help perfect your routines, of course. But it also helped with the mental game,” she says. “With that much practice, you knew when you got into a competition situation, and you were a little bit nervous, you wouldn’t blank. You could count on your muscle memory taking over simply because you had done the routine so many times.”

That practice is key. Grafton’s lab has found that action representations rely on a dedicated brain network, called the action/observation network, which includes the temporal cortex, frontoparietal cortex, and motor cortex. This network allows an athlete to mentally rehearse movement, to learn from observation and to sense subtle actions in other athletes. It also aids in breaking down movements into simpler “chunks” to facilitate learning. Over time and extended practice, other areas including the basal ganglia combine movements into longer chunks. This is critical for allowing athletic performance to become automatic.[i] 

“We talk about muscle memories but, of course, muscles don’t have memories,” he says. “But this brain network helps us to not just remember the movement, but also to help us accomplish new goals and recognize actions in others. It also allows athletes to take more of an external focus and not overthink things.”

And, according to Moceanu, not overthinking things is important. “Right before I would go up on any apparatus, I would just say a little prayer and then let it all go,” she says. “I let it go to autopilot and let my training take over. Because if you try to think too much, you overwhelm yourself and end up making uncharacteristic mistakes.”

Grafton says this is very common—and it’s because the brain’s motor systems process information much, much faster than our verbal ones. “The speed at which we talk, at which we think verbally is no better than an old 56K modem dial-up,” he says. “If you think about how fast things are going when you make a golf swing, or hit a baseball, or do some gymnastics, you just can’t think and expect to not interfere with your body. As soon as you think about it, and try to make adjustments on the fly, you’ll see your performance degenerate.”

Going with the “Flow”

Some refer to this place of athletic automaticity as a “flow” state. Dana Foundation grantee Charles Limb, an otolaryngologist and musician at Johns Hopkins University, studies the “flow” state in creative individuals. And while he says that “flow” may differ between artists and athletes, they do share some basic tenets.

“This is a state of mind in which you can perform with a certain ease and automaticity, and some other researchers would add that there is a significant level of joy implicit in it, too,” he says. His research suggests that achieving “flow” results in a deactivation of the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain responsible for executive control, and a heightened activation in the sensorimotor cortex, a region implicated in the planning and control of voluntary movements. [ii] [iii]

“The brain is, in a sense, inhibiting some of its self-monitoring to mitigate the detrimental effects of overthinking and excessive caution. The brain may be allocating more resources towards data processing and output,” says Limb. He argues that when athletes refer to “muscle memory,” they are really talking about a certain state of optimal neural coordination. “With practice, you are really training your brain to send out motor impulses with greater efficiency and optimization. While there are physical changes that accompany practice, in the end, it’s the brain that’s getting better and better.”

“Flow” may also help the brain get to a state that helps maximize attention and self-regulation while downgrading stress.

“This is an issue of expertise. If you’re an expert at a particular field, you have a lot of information about that field and you can anticipate what comes next, what your opponent might do and so on,” says Michael Posner, a neuroscientist who studies attention at the University of Oregon and a member of the Dana Alliance for Brain Initiatives. “That means you can deal with things in that field that people without that expertise can’t. It allows you to deploy your attention faster and in a different way.”[iv]

In addition, Posner says some studies have shown that one difference in athletic performance is the ability to maintain an alert state, one aspect of attention. “Elite athletes begin to prepare for the next trial as soon as they made their response to the last trial. Non-athletes relaxed after the last trial and waited for the next waiting signal,” he says. “The athletes are always ready for what comes next.”[v]

Even with that vigilance, high performance athletes remain cool under fire. Miller credits practice for this ability—not just in the gym, but in competition. “You get there by competing every weekend, understanding what it means to be in a competition, to have the audience there and to learn to block out all the things that are going on around you no matter what,” she says. “I was doing competitions every weekend starting when I was very young. By the time I was 15, and certainly by the time I was 19 at the Olympics, I could really focus.”

Bruce McEwen, a neuroscientist at Rockefeller University and Dana Alliance member, says that practice may result in changes to hormones and brain chemistry that help athletes better deal with stress. “Studies suggest that biochemicals like testosterone and hormone neuropeptide Y help Special Forces-type people and NFL Quarterbacks keep cool and perform well in high-stress situations,” he says. “And so they could also be important physiologic factors that influence the brain function of these top-tier athletes under the stress of competition.”[vi]

Motivation and the Teen Brain

While Limb says there’s some debate whether joy is part of the “flow” state, it’s clear that the right amount of motivation is not. “The skills you learn during practice are critical to reaching an elite level. Athletes have a lot of expertise in the particular field in which they perform,” says Posner. “And you have to be really motivated to do the amount of practice to reach that level of expertise.”

Moceanu, the youngest member of the 1996 U.S. Olympic Gymnastics Team at 14, says that she was very motivated—enough to give up a normal teenage social life to pursue her dream of Olympic gold. “It was my dream since I was nine years old and someone called me an ‘Olympic hopeful,’” she says. “That was it. I wanted to be the best. I wanted to be an Olympic champion. And I was going to do whatever I could to get there.”

Dana Alliance member Abigail Baird, a neuroscientist who studies the teenage brain at Vassar College, says the teen years may be the best time to foster that kind of motivation and mental focus.

“What’s better than being on a winning team? In teens, we’ve learned that it’s not so much about delivering the reward as it is about anticipating the reward,” she says. “The nucleus accumbens is really sensitive to the anticipation of that reward. I would assume that a lot of athletes need that to make the kind of commitment that elite sports require,” she says. “There’s also a huge social component of what motivates adolescents to perform their best. There is a huge neural buzz associated with being included and liked by your peers during adolescence. Few things accomplish that as well as being a star athlete on a team with your friends. When you put all of that together, I don’t think there is a better situation to build up the kind of motivation that will elevate great athletes to truly exceptional levels of performance.”

A Strong, Powerful Mind

McEwen cautions that there is still a lot we don’t understand about what Miller calls “mental game” from the neuroscience perspective. But given the number of studies showing that physical activity makes profound, healthy changes to the brain, it’s something worth studying. [vii]

For example, Moceanu says that her mental game has been very beneficial to the rest of her life. “Sport is a model for life and it’s helped me with my entire life, with my focus, discipline, and reaching my goals,” she says. “You learn how to budget your time, to work hard, and to balance things. It’s invaluable.”

The biggest question remains as to whether there is something innate about elite athletes’ brains that allows them to reach that high level of performance or whether anyone can achieve that kind of expertise with the right training. Miller says it may be a combination of the two. “A certain amount of it may just be who you are and how you look at things,” she says. “But I think a great deal can be learned through good training as well.”

Moceanu agrees. “I’ve seen so many gifted athletes not make it because they couldn’t handle the sport mentally. It’s such a huge part of gymnastics—really any sport once you get to a certain level. Only those with a strong mind are going to compete at a high level. Only those with a strong mind are going to win.”