There are some easy answers to the question, “How do I improve my sports skills?” and they include take lessons and improve strength, flexibility and balance in the relevant muscles. Understanding a little of how the brain works gives a different answer, and encourages us to practise our sport at a different time to playing matches or training sessions. For a few, how to practise comes naturally. For the rest of us, it is a skill that has to be learnt. And the parts of the brain particularly involved is the cerebellum and the frontal cortex, the thinking part of the brain. Incidentally, it is not only sports that benefit from this, but any physical skill, including playing an instrument.
The cerebellum is a bean shaped bulge, the size of our fist, that sits just below the main part of the brain. Ever since the 1880s the cerebellum has been understood to control posture, co-ordination and balance. Here is a description by Dr John Ratey, author of Spark! The revolutionary new science of exercise and the brain.
Information about body movement and position enters the cerebellum, where it is processed. Instructions are then sent out to modify posture and coordinate muscle movement. This is more crucial than it may sound. For movements to be performed, the brain must know the position and speed of our body and of each limb and where you are in space and time. Spatial orientation and posture are essential to knowing ‘where you stand.’ The only reason you remain upright and don’t fall down because of gravity is constant monitoring by the cerebellum. It adjusts postural responses at the brain stem, which sends messages down the spinal cord that control muscles that straighten and extend the torso and limbs, fighting against the downward force. This incredible feat is being accomplished all the time, without our being aware of it. 1
However, our bean shaped bulge is doing a lot more than keeping us upright and knowing where we are in space. There are 3 parts to the cerebellum: the oldest part, the archicerebellum, receives balance signals from the brain; messages from the legs that keep us upright go to the paleocerebellum and the most recent part, the neocerebellum, is particularly associated with fine motor control, especially of the fingers. The cerebellum also is where we learn and remember physical skills, like riding a bike or roller skates. Even if we haven’t ridden a bike for years, we can still leap on a Boris Bike in London and wobble out into the traffic – something I can testify to since my son is particularly fond of putting me through this experience. 2 He cheerily informs me that the traffic has learnt to give these bikes a wide berth. Anyway, once a skill is learnt, it stays with us, abeit rather rusty, for years.
So the cerebellum has 2 functions – to keep us upright and able to move about, and to help us learn and remember movement skills. There is a 3rd and controversial function of the cerebellum, and that may be as a support system for some cognitive tasks. In the 1980s, a woman called Henrietta Leiner who had been a mathematician and then worked with computer systems, after raising her children decided to go back to college to study neuroanatomy. When she came to dissect a human brain, she was completely astounded to see about 40 million nerve fibres descending from the cortex (the thinking part of the brain) to the cerebellum. This had to be evidence of one very powerful computer. For example, in contrast, there are about 1 million nerve fibres that travel from the eyes to the brain along the optic tract. She also found that the neocerebellum is much larger in humans than it is in other primates, and so wondered if maybe it has something to do with such uniquely human traits as language, logic, planning, music. Because she was not a died-in-the-wool neuroscientist, her ideas were dismissed as bonkers. In due course, they were looked at and one disbeliever, Professor Peter Strick, ran some experiments on the idea. Using fMRI technology to see what activates the cerebellum, they set experimental subjects the task of moving pegs on a board with their hands. When the task was simple, a part of the neocerebellum called the dentate nucleus was only slightly activated. But when the task became extremely difficult, so instead of moving the pegs, they had to think how to do it, their dentate nucleus fired strongly, confirming that the cerebellum helps the brain with not only physical agility but also mental agility too. 3 Following on from such research, it is being thought that the cerebellum makes predictions based on previous experience about what is needed to perform a sequence of tasks using different parts of the brain and it sets up automatic conditions for optimal performance. 4
So how does this help improve performance? In a book called The Talent Code by Daniel Coyle, he talks about his time travelling to talent hotbeds around the globe and watching how the very great learn and are taught.
Meet Brunio. He is 11 years old, working on a new soccer move on a concrete playground in São Paolo, Brazil. He moves slowly, feeling the ball roll beneath the sole of his cheap sneaker. He is trying to learn the elastico, a ball-handling maneuver in which he nudges the ball with the outside of his foot, then quickly swings his foot around the ball to flick it the opposite direction with his instep. Done properly, the move gives the viewer the impression that the player has the ball on a rubber band. The first time we watch Brunio try the move, he fails, then stops and thinks. He does it again more slowly and fails again – the ball squirts away. He stops and thinks again. He does it even more slowly, breaking the move down to its component parts – this, this, and that. His face is taut; his eyes are so focused, they look like they’re somewhere else. Then something clicks: he start nailing the move.
Important points in the above description are how Brunio stops and thinks. How he slows it down, thinks some more and tries again – all done with great concentration. Essentially his cortex is working through its 40 million nerve fibres to build a solid movement pattern in the cerebellum. This is powerful stuff. I would also suggest that we can do excellent physical practice mentally – completely away from activity. Concentrate completely upon what movement or part of the movement that needs improving. Focus on what needs to happen at every part, imagine it happening in the body and don’t be afraid to break the movement down into tiny sections. Perfect each tiny section, then the whole looks after itself. And go as slowly as it takes.
Throughout the book, Daniel Coyle keeps referring to the importance of breaking things down into chunks and practising them very slowly and with great concentration. The brain works by patterns and predictions, and so by laying down strong movement patterns, driven by the cortex, the cerebellum becomes more efficient at predicting movements and strengthening body/brain interaction, so our game can only improve. Of course, to concentrate so hard requires a brain that is working well, and it is pointless to expect such extreme concentration to last for more than about 1 hour. Less would be better. To help stimulate the cerebellum, find a demanding balance challenge before starting. Getting enough sleep, water and excellent brain based nutrition (see my page on How to eat well for the working athlete) stokes up the brain. The rest is up to the individual.
- Ratey. A Users Guide to the brain. p163. [↩]
- The first time I sallied forth on a Boris bike, we hired the bike and my son said, ‘Well, you’d better practice a bit here, Mum.’ So I wibbled about briefly in bus stop, then off we set and within 5 minutes I found myself going around Parliament Square. My grip strength improved in a moment – as did my jaw strength. I did survive without any mishaps. The second time I was inveigled onto a bike, I ended up shooting at high speed in a narrow gap between cars. It was terrifying. But I could still ride the bike… [↩]
- Basal ganglia and cerebellar loops: motor cognitive circuits. Middleton FA, Strick PL. Brain research 31 (2000) 236-250. This is a review of studies, and contains a summary of the peg board study. [↩]
- For more information, the book Balance by Scott McCredie is very interesting. [↩]