One of my favourite sayings is, “If you can train your body you can train your brain.” For me, this phrase sums up what we do as sport psychologists. It was once believed that the brain could not be trained or changed; in other words, you were stuck with the brain you were born with. The good news is there is now evidence that supports the idea that the brain can reorganise itself to think more effectively and can compensate for weaknesses or injury.
How do you train your brain?
Think of your brain like a muscle. Neurons are like the muscle fibres of the brain and create pathways that contribute to thinking patterns and behaviours. Pathways are developed over time through practice and experience.
Muscles need repetitive strain to build strength and power. In the same way, repetition and practice is required to create new neural pathways. Established neural pathways are like highways that are easy to travel on. These behaviours and thinking patterns seem to come naturally as they are well trained and the path is easy to travel along. Creating new thinking patterns and new behaviours are more challenging; like forming a new path in the bush. Increasing traffic flow down that pathway through practice of desired behaviours leads to a clear path that eventually becomes a highway. Deliberate practice of behaviour and thinking patterns such as optimistic or resilient thought patterns changes your brain!
Different focuses of physical training lead to different results in your body. If you want to build muscle size rather than power, you will have a different training regime. Bodybuilders have different goals and body requirements to marathon runners and therefore their training looks different. In the same way, brain training needs to be targeted and goal-oriented.
To gain maximum results from training you need to have good technique. There is nothing to be gained by changing a behaviour or thinking pattern without knowing what you want to change it to. Have a clear plan of what you want, rather than what you don’t want, and how to get it.
Muscles need consistent training for lasting results. So does your brain! Practice, practice, practice! Sport psychology sessions lay a great platform for change but lasting change only happens when people keep training their brains outside of sessions on a regular basis.
Physical growth happens when you lift heavy weights (in safe conditions). Every difficult situation that you face, every failure, every challenge is an opportunity to grow stronger and develop resilience. When athletes want to build muscle, they often go through a phase of ‘training to failure’, which means lifting a weight that pushes them just over the limit of their strength. In that moment, tiny tears occur in the muscle fibres that cause them to get help to build more muscle to cope with a heavier load than it could before. Similarly, adverse situations create an opportunity to build resources and strength and experience to increase your capacity to cope. You do not have to seek difficult situations, however, this analogy can help you to bring an optimistic outlook to challenging circumstances and failures.
Is it time to train your brain?