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The Mental Game

The Growing Popularity of Brain Training and Sports
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“The brain is an organ, like the heart. We often work on cardiovascular training to increase fitness, so why not train the brain?” said Katie Townsend-Merino, a former psychology professor who teaches mindfulness-based stress reduction courses at the Center for Health and Sports Performance at Tahoe Forest Hospital.
 
Her sentiment reflects the simple logic to getting our brains into their best possible shape, because doing so makes us happier and better at what we want to do. And increasingly, this strategy is being applied in sports to give athletes — from the recreational level to the professional — an added edge. 
 
While the concept of “above the neck” training is not a new one, technological advancements, science, and shifting attitudes are pushing it more toward the mainstream, with Tahoe/Truckee — as a competitive sport-loving community — situated nicely to reap the rewards. 
 
Evolving Mentalities
 
Direct brain training efforts are not necessarily part of most athletes’ daily bag of tools. But experts from personal trainers to sports psychologists to the world’s leading fitness gurus tout the benefits of brain training, and believe it can be done without investing significant time or retooling your overall approach to sports.
 
Visualization, breathing techniques, concentration exercises, self-talk, and meditation are some of the more common practices.
 
“It comes down to the ability to change our minds, and it can be done … though it doesn’t happen overnight,” said Scott McRae, the co-founder of Tahoe Peaks Athletic Club in Truckee. He incorporates mental training techniques with the classes they teach, and notes that the higher the level of athlete he works with, the more interest they have in improving their brains. He believes building confidence to be the biggest overall benefit to working on the brain. 
 
An applicable example to nearly anyone is injury recovery and wanting to get back to 100 percent strength. He notes that post-injury, the brain can naturally work against the quest to return to normalcy. “When you relive injuries, the memory gets lodged deeper into your brain, and that rehearsal in your mind can make it very real to your brain,” McRae said.     
 
In this scenario, he employs visualization to help the client picture the level he or she would like to be at, and talks through it during exercise, as well as making recommendations for additional practice outside the workout. “If you’re thinking about doing your activities well when you’re going to bed, you’ll be fine. If not, it’ll tear you up, and that’s where visualization becomes effective.”
 
But I dunno if that stuff is for me, man
 
Mental training techniques can seem like New Age mumbo-jumbo to some, perhaps in part because the practice can be rooted in actions like sitting and breathing versus direct action, but trainers and others fully believe in the results. 
 
“Not everyone’s into it, but I think it’s going to grow,” said Dr. Yani Dickens, a sports psychologist at the University of Nevada, Reno, who provides consultation services to student athletes. “I’m hoping athletes and coaches continue to become more open to these techniques in the future.”
 
Goal setting, imagery, and diaphragm breathing are among the techniques Dr. Dickens uses when working with athletes from a broad range of collegiate sports. Her work spans from focusing directly on maximizing athletic performance to working with athletes who may be suffering from high stress, anxiety, or depression. 
 
Several factors show that our culture may be becoming more accepting to mental training. Smartphone apps such as Headspace and Mindfulness (meditation apps), and Headtrainer (a cognitive sports performance app, endorsed by big name pros) are downloaded by the millions. Townsend-Merino believes the ability for people to utilize these services in the comfort of their own home will help grow the popularity of brain training.
 
Professional sports teams are also more frequently hiring mental coaches, which has the potential to trickle down to the common athlete. A 2015 New York Post article cited that at least 12 Major League Baseball teams hire mental health pros who help players with issues from struggling in their career to life challenges off the field. While the work done at the professional level takes on a different form than for the recreational athlete (the crushing emotions of a big loss and subsequent media scrutiny, for example), it indicates a changing trend. 
 
Dr. Robb Gaffney, a former top-level skier at Squaw and a practicing psychiatrist in Tahoe City, agrees there is a shift happening. “Certainly the stigma surrounding mental health is dropping off, and that opens a lot of doors,” Gaffney said. 
 
Go with the…
 
The mention of flow states — a happy place of peak physical performance — is coming up more often in the conversation around mental training. They’re a complicated neurological event involving the brain’s chemicals, but are essentially what is felt when in the zone, or experiencing a runner’s high. The activity becomes effortless and time seems to slow down, among other enjoyable effects. Athletes win championships while in flow states, and scientists want to nail down how to reproduce them; not just for athletes, but for everybody.
 
“Flow carries within it delicious possibility. In the state, we are aligned with our core passion and, because of flow’s incredible impact on performance, expressing that passion to our utmost,” writes NY Times bestselling author Steven Kotler in his book about flow states, The Rise of Superman.
 
Kotler’s book — credited with bringing publicity to flow states — turns the attention to the meteoric gains seen in action sports in a relatively short amount of time, and posits that a main reason for this is that these athletes are proficient in tapping into flow states — often times out of necessity due to the dangers involved in their sport. (In the book, Tahoe is referred to as a hotbed for breeding flow states, shown mainly through the careers of Shane McConkey and Jeremy Jones.)
 
Gaffney — who went from finding flow on Squaw’s hardiest lines to finding it during meaningful conversations in the workplace — points out that while flow’s positive benefits are incredible, he hopes it can be applied to all levels of sports and life. “Flow states, as they are discussed in the action sports world, are unilateral, and that’s when it becomes a little dangerous,” Gaffney said, referring to a concern that flow is intertwined tightly with high-risk sports. “The reality is, it’s happening to skiers on the mountain at every level, and we need to expand our vision of flow.”
 
Kotler and his team hope to not only do just that, but also create a way for anyone to learn how to access flow. He co-founded the Flow Genome Project, which has a goal to “map the genome of flow by the year 2020 and open-source it to everyone,” according to the website. 
 
With available tools like mindfulness classes, personal training with a brain training focus, a handful of high-tech apps, and a national effort to get the mysteries of flow mapped out for the masses, the time is now to clear our heads and boost our performance to new levels.
 
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December 14, 2017