Mind Games: Exploring and Analyzing the Mind of an Athlete

By Willa MaInterdisciplinary Studies, Cycle 7, 2016



As sports fans, we marvel at elite athletes and the way they play their sport. The physical prowess is clearly seen, but the little-researched yet powerful brain behind the body is also a key factor in the success of these exceptional athletes. Athletic performance does not only benefit from a thinking mind, as the mind also benefits from sports. Mental toughness, focus, and anticipation are just a few mental strategies that the mind develops when playing sports. In addition, sports also enhance specific regions of the brain and cause structural changes. Athletes have sharpened their minds to pay attention to the little details to better their game, but this skill does not just stay on the court. The skills learned through sports benefit athletes throughout life and in the workforce.


En garde, and the fencing match begins. A father, age 69, and his 20-year-old son face off in what seems to be an easy win for the latter. But it turns into a close battle. Despite the age difference, both competitors are able to attack with precision, even though many would expect the older individual to be far weaker than the younger, more agile one. According to a study done at the University of Rome, sports that involve quick decision-making, like fencing, are associated with improving cognitive functions like processing and attention and help hinder mental declines that come with aging, which explains why the older individual is able to compete neck-in-neck with the younger one (Mullin, 2015). In a similar study, athletes and non-athletes were given a cognitive test that mimicked the cognitive functions used in sports, and athletes were measured to be more accurate with better reaction times than non-athletes. Clearly, the mind of an athlete is powerful. Since many scholars typically focus on the negative aspects of sports on the brain, the approach that athletics benefit the brain is often overlooked. Recently, cases have arisen involving the “hidden injury” known as concussions, shining an unpleasant light on sports, especially high contact sports like football. My research, however, demonstrates the benefits sports have on the brain. Through the use of scholarly research with scholarship in neuroscience, my research analyzes how the brain works when playing sports and how athletics benefit the mind by improving cognition, supporting brain plasticity, and strengthening the mind on and off the field.

The mind is more than just the interactions and connections of neurons. According to yogic science, the brain is a physical manifestation of the mind (Sarich, 2012), and the mind is made up of the abstract thoughts that go beyond the concrete brain functions (Greenfield, 2002). It encapsulates what we perceive and the experiences we have and communicates “in the language of feeling” (Sarich, 2016). The primary difference between brain and mind is that the brain is the physical organ of the human body that controls bodily functions and sensations, but the mind is the interpretation of what the brain connects. For example, in the brain, the amygdala may be stimulated when we are faced with a strong emotion like anger, but our mind sees the anger and frustration that came from missing the last shot in a basketball game. Clearly, the brain contrasts with the mind, for the mind is what compiles everything we experience and makes sense of what our brain perceives.

Cognitive performance improves when the brain and the body work together. Studies show that people who exercise regularly on a stationary bike for at least 20 minutes perform better on cognitive executive functioning tasks, proving the benefit of exercise to the brain (Schraefel, 2015). The US Department of Health defines physical activity as bodily activity that leads to expended energy above resting levels (Thomas, Dennis, et al, 2012). Studies have been done on rodents to show the changes that happen in brains while exercising. After 30 days of regularly running through an acrobatic maze, the rodents had an increased number of synapses per purkinje cell in the cerebellum, which are cells that regulate motor movements. In addition, wheel running significantly increased numbers of new neurons in the hippocampus of rodents, which suggests a stronger memory and better regulation of stress. Sports take physical activity to the next level by further engaging and strengthening the brain. The key difference between physical activity and sports is that sports are driven by a goal: winning a game or finishing a race (Schraefel, 2015). Winning requires both physical and cognitive skills for strategy and tactics. For example, sports enhance an athlete’s perceptual cognition or vision by requiring the brain to rapidly process information while being in a dynamic state. When you play soccer, you aren’t just running up and down the field—you are also reading the field, utilizing a strategy to score, and locating your teammates and opponents while playing. While sports have clear advantages over physical activity, not all sports are the same; sports can be split into two types: open skill and closed skill sports (Mullin, 2015). Open skill sports are unpredictable and include volleyball, fencing, and basketball. In contrast, closed skill sports are stable, predictable, non-contact and self-paced, like swimming, gymnastics, and golf. Taiwanese researchers conducted a study to determine the difference between the two types of sports on the brain and the mind. Participants were broken into two groups of those who practiced open-skill sports and those who practiced closed-skill sports. The Erikson-flanker test, which involves quick response to a target on a computer screen, was used to test reaction time. While both groups had similar response speeds, open skill athletes demonstrated greater neural efficiency compared to the other group. Neural efficiency is the ability to use fewer neurons and exhibit lower activation of the brain when working on a cognitive task. Playing a sport engages more interactions in the brain than just physical exercise alone, and these skills lead to success in sports and strengthen one’s mind by promoting creativity and innovation in areas outside of sports (Reynolds, 2011). Moreover, elite athletes are able to respond faster to tasks outside the realm of their sports, according to research done at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. In another study done at the same campus, researchers discovered in a virtual road crossing that athletes were able to complete significantly more successful road crossings than non-athletes, not because they were able to move faster, but because they glanced along the street more times than non-athletes, allowing them to gather more data into their brains. Cognition is improved by those who regularly exercise, but even more so by those who play sports that engage the brain as well as the body.

With the lack of attention toward the benefits sports have on the mind, the “dumb jock” stereotype continues to persist in today’s culture despite evidence fighting against it. The stereotype dates back to 500 BC when Greek athletes were believed to have abandoned intellectual development to spend time preparing for sport and competition and were “characterized by some philosophers of the period as useless and ignorant citizens with dull minds” (Sailes, 1993). More recently, college athletes, especially those playing sports like basketball and football, have been criticized and tainted by the media because of reports that say recruits do not meet academic standards of the NCAA and have low college graduation rates. The prevalence of this stereotype is shown through a study that surveyed 869 undergraduate and graduate students finding that “45% of subjects felt that college student-athletes were not as smart as the average college student, almost 44% felt student-athletes took easy courses to stay academically eligible, and 37% felt student-athletes were not as academically competitive as the typical college student” (Sailes, 1993). However, while the dumb jock stereotype persists, there is no scientific basis to it, and there is actually more evidence proving the stereotype wrong. From youth, sports prove to be advantageous to participants in the classroom. With a focus on childhood development, researcher Linda Pagani from the Université de Montréal found evidence that organized extracurricular sports develop and improve cognitive skills, and that in the classroom, athletics increase concentration capacity (2015). Looking at the impact of team sports, Pagani discovered that by the fourth grade, kids who played structured sports were better at following instructions and staying focused. She found that in the sporting world the sense of belonging on a team allows kids to better understand and respect rules and responsibilities. Moreover, Division I student athletes in college actually graduate at higher rates than the general student body (Hosick, 2014). In 2008, the annual graduation success rate of all Division I student-athletes was 77 percent, and this percentage has steadily increased. By 2014, the rate was 86 percent. In addition to higher graduation rates, athletes tend to succeed at higher rates when they leave their college campus, such as obtaining higher salaries. A recent study done at Cornell University showed that participation in competitive sports in youth correlates with better jobs in the future. To prove this positive correlation, 66 adults over the age of 25 participated in the study by answering questions about their athletic history as well as leadership, time management, self-respect, and volunteerism (Kniffin, Wansink, Shimizu, 2015). Postdoctoral research associate Kevin Kniffin discovered that competitive sports develop skills like leadership, self-confidence and self-respect, which are advantageous traits for those looking for good jobs. Compared to people who were part of other extracurricular activities, athletes were able to demonstrate these beneficial qualities throughout their lives, earn higher-paying jobs, and possess greater prosocial behavior in ages over 70, suggesting the benefits of sports throughout an athlete’s entire life.

“Practice makes perfect,” coaches always say; it’s one of the most cliché quotes in sports, but in these three simple words lies a very concrete truth. To the brain, practice really does yield better results. Vince Lombardi, a famous football coach, was known for running the same play repeatedly in practice just so it could be executed perfectly in competition. In a study done at the University of California, Santa Barbara, researcher Scott Grafton studied the importance of repetition and practice when it comes to sports (Sukel, 2012). He found that the action-observation network of the brain, which includes the temporal cortex, frontoparietal cortex and the motor cortex, helps break down movements into smaller components at first, which facilitates learning. After long periods of practice, the basal ganglia then combines the movements together into larger chunks. This network allows athletes to rehearse movements mentally and learn from observation. Practice tricks the brain into not overthinking. From the standpoint of a gymnast, practicing a routine many times allows for the body to go into autopilot during an actual competition, where overthinking may interfere with performance. To the brain, the repetition in practice allows the body to perform almost without thinking. As stated by Grafton, overthinking is very common because the brain’s motor systems process information much faster than the brain’s verbal systems. For example, imagine how fast things are going when trying to shoot a basketball. Taking the time to think in a situation like that is difficult to do if you don’t want to interfere with your motor processes or your bodily function, so as soon as athletes begin to overthink or make adjustments to how they are shooting, their performance will definitely deteriorate. Moreover, the American Psychological Association reported a study conducted in Germany that tested athletic skill and choking under pressure (2012). These researchers found that athletes perform better when relying on their bodies to perform the movements for their sport, rather than overthinking their actions.

When elite athletes compete, one of their key skills is the ability to anticipate events before they actually happen, and this skill is developed in the brain through repetitive practice that leads to a sense of automaticity for athletes. Athletes have sharpened their minds to pay attention to the little details to better their game (Voss, 2010). This selective attention is associated to a state of athletic automaticity known as “flow,” which is a state of mind where athletes perform with ease or almost involuntarily (Sukel, 2012). The activation of “flow” results in the deactivation of the prefrontal cortex, which plays a role in planning complex behavior and decision making, and an increased activation in the sensorimotor cortex, which is a region that deals with the control of voluntary movements. In other words, the brain hinders some of its self-monitoring in order to reduce the effects of overthinking. “Flow” is a state that maximizes attention on the right things in regard to the sport being played, and allows an athlete’s attention to anticipate the opponent’s movements or know what is coming next. Furthermore, this skill of anticipation doesn’t just remain on the court. Michael Posner, a neuroscientist at the University of Oregon, discovered that athletes’ attention prepares them for the next event as soon as they respond to the previous event and keeps them alert, while non-athletes wait after responding to the first event and are more relaxed. This alertness athletes possess translates to off-the-court situations where making quick and smart decisions benefits them outside of sports.

While for athletes it is important to practice regularly and be in a state of “flow” during competition, according to coaches and the Mental Toughness Scale (MTS), mental toughness, the determination to overcome adversity when playing a sport, is arguably the most important mental skills an athlete can develop. A year after Michael Phelps’ record-breaking performance at the 2008 Olympics, he returned to the water to compete in his best event in the 2009 world championships (Shipley, 2012). However, this time, he was older and much less prepared physically for the elite swimming that he had been accustomed to for the years leading up to the prior Olympics. Despite being older, slower, and “out-of-shape” for an Olympian, Phelps was still able to clinch the title in the 100m butterfly and claim another world record. His coach said that he owed all of this to mental toughness. US Olympic Committee sport psychologist Sean McCann believes that mental strength is an attribute that can be naturally possessed by some athletes, and Michael Phelps is one of them. In the words of sports psychologist Graham Jones, mental toughness is defined as “the natural or developed psychological edge that enables you to generally cope better than your opponents with the many demands that sport places on a performer” (2002). McCann breaks mental strength into two components: a desire for superiority and a resilience to overcome unforeseen circumstances (Shipley, 2012). Within those components, the main attributes of mental toughness include controlling pressure, staying focused, and remaining confident, motivated, and determined, which is what the MTS developed by Leilani Madrigal, Sharon Hamill and Diane L. Gill (2013) is based on. The MTS is a 54-question assessment on attitude, training, competition, and post-competition, and in their research, they studied the results of college athletes and non-college athletes. Their results reinforced that training is extremely important to mental toughness. Most athletes spend more time training than competing in their sports. The results of the MTS correlated with the ranking coaches gave to their players; those who were ranked high by their coaches also scored high on the MTS. Mental toughness is a key to success in sports, and sports help athletes acquire this skill that non-athletes cannot obtain.

The motivation of athletes like Michael Phelps is what keeps them engaged in sports, and this dedication to their sport builds a sense of motivation that can be used outside the sports world. In the 1996 Olympics, the youngest member of the US Gymnastics team was 14 years old (Sukel, 2012). Her name was Dominique Moceanu. The first time she heard herself referred to as an “Olympic hopeful” was when she was nine. That was all it took to motivate her to give up a normal teenage life and pursue the Olympics. Abigail Baird, a neuroscientist at Vassar College, studies the teenage brain. She learned that mental focus and motivation is particularly well-fostered in teenagers because for teens, anticipating a reward or the glory of winning is much more gratifying than actually receiving the reward. The nucleus accumbens, whose operation is based on dopamine, a neurotransmitter that promotes desire, is reactive to the anticipation of a reward, and is easily stimulated by athletes who are strongly motivated to succeed in sports. Phelps is one of many elite athletes who exemplify the strong motivation of teenagers. At 15 years old, he attended his first Olympic Games in 2000, and at the 2004 Games in Athens when he was 19 years old, he won six gold medals and two bronze (Shipley, 2012). Motivation is clearly promoted in athletes at a young age, and this drive benefits these athletes in areas outside of sports, motivating them to succeed in other areas of life.

Visualization is a beneficial technique used amongst many athletes to better their game; it is mentally seeing yourself performing a skill or doing well in your sport. Manchester United striker Wayne Rooney said, “I lie in bed the night before the game and visualize myself scoring goals or doing well. You’re trying to put yourself in that moment and trying to prepare yourself” (Bailey, 2014). Rooney is an example of an elite athlete who uses the technique of visualization. A research study done by Guang Yue, an exercise psychologist from the Cleveland Clinic Foundation compared regular athletes who went to the gym and those who just “carried out virtual workouts in their heads” (LeVan, 2009). He found a 30% increase in muscle for those who went to the gym and a 13.5% increase in muscle for those who did virtual workouts. Moreover, when studying the brain patterns of weightlifters, similar patterns were found when lifting weights and simply imagined lifting. Though physical training is still important for elite athletes, studies show that visualizing and mental practice can boost an athlete’s performance and can be an effective addition to physical training. Sports psychologist Richard Suinn found that visualization triggers neural firings in muscles and builds a blueprint that facilitates performance in the future (Bailey, 2014). With the use of electromyographic equipment, Suinn studied the brains of skiers and found that skiers who visualized skiing fired electrical impulses and produced muscle patterns nearly identical to the patterns found in those who were actually skiing. Though visualization does not replace or equate to years of actively practicing a sport, mental rehearsal does help athletes’ neural connections to better their performance. Using imagery, athletes further train their mind to perform the right technique and better execute their physical body during competition.

Participation in sports can also affect athletes by causing other structural changes in specific regions of the brain. According to research conducted at the Korea University College of Medicine, short-track speed skaters have larger right hemispheres of the cerebellum, the center of the brain in balance control, than non-skaters (Springer Science+Business Media, 2012). Researcher Im Joo Rhyu analyzed MRI scans of the brains of 16 male professional short-track speed skaters and 18 non-skaters. Results that depicted the professional skaters to have noticeably larger right hemispheres suggest that the right hemisphere of the cerebellum is very flexible. Gliding on ice requires a specialized skill set involving balance and coordination, and speed skaters only turn left while maintaining balance on their right foot, so the right lobes of the cerebellum are larger because of this increased need for balance on the right foot, which activates the right hemisphere. Moreover, visually guided tasks are typically associated with the right hemisphere which further explains why the right lobe of the cerebellum has a larger volume compared to the left. Another study researching the neuroplasticity of the brains of athletes was conducted in China on a group of professional divers and a group of non-divers (Wei, Zhang, et al, 2011). These Chinese researchers were specifically looking at cortical thickness, which is the thickness of the layers of the cerebral cortex in mammals and is often related to a person’s cognitive ability. In the comparison between the two groups tested, the athlete group revealed increased cortical thickness in three regions of the brain: the left superior temporal sulcus, the right orbitofrontal cortex, and the right parahippocampal gyrus. In addition, the amount of training experience correlated significantly with cortical thickness specifically in the right parahippocampal gyrus, which is closely associated with acquiring skills during diving. The parahippocampal gyrus is known to have a function in memory encoding and retrieval, and the researchers in this study concluded that changes in this region of the brain are strongly associated with increased expertise and spatial information processing in diving. The increased thickness of the left superior temporal sulcus, typically known to play a role in perceiving motions of the body, indicates that athletes are better at perceiving movements of others despite the amount of information provided and have a better understanding of the relationship of the observed motion and the environment. The orbitofrontal cortex regulates decision making and is associated with reward and punishment, which suggests that athletes have a good understanding of reward like a medal and punishment like failure in a competition. Evidence from many studies show how flexible our brains can be because of engagement in sports.

Neuroplasticity has long been thought to be the flexibility of the brain mostly in youths, but studies show that physical activity and sports allow the brain to continue to develop and change at all ages. Though aging is typically associated with a decrease in cardiovascular health, studies show that engaging in regular aerobic exercise enhances the central nervous system and improves cognitive function in adults (Colombe, Erickson, et al, 2006). Fifty-nine healthy individuals, aged 60-79 years old, participated in a clinical trial; half participated in aerobic activity and the other half simply did stretching and toning exercises. After six months, researchers found a significant increase in brain volume for those who participated in aerobic exercise. These researchers from the University of Illinois highlighted the changing brain at even during old age, proving the benefit of physical activity to the mind. When the brain starts to deteriorate with age, a wide range of cognitive processes also declines, but those who performed aerobic exercise showed improved cognitive functioning, especially “in higher order processes, such as working memory, ability to switch between tasks, and inhibiting irrelevant information” (Colombe, Erickson, et al, 2006). Previous research with non-humans provides further evidence for their findings, like aerobic exercise leading to a growth of new capillaries in the brain, increased production of cells in the hippocampus, and increased number of connections between neurons. Their research suggests that the human brain is flexible and can change at any age. Discoveries have also been reported showing the positive correlation between sports and brain plasticity (Chang, Tsai, et al, 2015). In a study comparing the basal ganglia, which is involved in coordination of movement, of runners and martial artists, researchers noticed that athletic experience influenced the basal ganglia, and the specific sport does not matter. In addition, athletes (runners and martial artists) and non-athletes were examined through physical fitness assessments. The athlete group showed lower fractional anisotropy and mean diffusivity that measure connectivity and directionality in the brain. This conclusion indicates elite training changes white matter in the brain, which is made of axons in the central nervous system, by accelerating nerve signals.

While sports do cause physical structural changes to the brain, athletics, whether playing or watching them, also engage the brain by strengthening the brain, but not causing structural changes. A team of researchers led by Kathleen Cullen at McGill University (2015) discovered the role of the cerebellum in learning new motor skills. They uncovered that like mathematical models, the brains of athletes are constantly engaging in computations to speedily compare anticipated feedback and actual feedback and then readjust to strengthen connections between neurons to form new patterns within the brain. The brain estimates the sensory inflow that it should receive when learning a new motor skill, and the cerebellum differentiates between what actually happened and what was intended. For elite athletes, their brains are much more responsive to making predictions and readjustments when learning new skills. Moreover, sports are not only advantageous for those who play, but a study in 2008 by researchers at the University of Chicago (2008) discovered that just watching sports is beneficial to the brain. Their study showed watching sports enriches a person’s ability to understand language regarding that sport more precisely because areas in the brain normally used for actions become involved in understanding language. The brain does this by altering the neural networks that deal with language comprehension to include areas in the brain active in performing in sports. The study was focused on the game of hockey. Twelve hockey players, eight fans and nine individuals who never watched hockey before, were tested by scanning their brains with an MRI while they listened to sentences about hockey and sentences that were about everyday activities. After listening to the sentences, the subjects were tested based on comprehension of the sentences. It was revealed through brain imaging that hockey players and fans showed activity in brain regions that plan physical actions, suggesting that increased activity in these motor areas help them understand hockey and the language associated with it. Overall, the discovery was that those who played and watched sports developed a stronger understanding of language as opposed to those who do not regularly participate in these activities.

Athletics are a huge part of today’s culture. We often look up to the great athletes and are captivated by memorable performances like Michael Jordan’s game-winning shot in the 1982 NCAA National Championship or Carli Lloyd’s hat trick within the first 16 minutes of the 2015 World Cup final. We wonder how they became so great and what makes them great. While the training of the body leads these elite athletes to this caliber of play, the strength of the mind is also an important factor in competitive sports. We see the physical aspects of how they play, and it is evident how playing a sport benefits the body, but in sports, the brain is also at work, and clear advantages are seen in the minds of athletes.



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Willa Ma

Biomedical Engineering; minoring in Neuroscience and Exercise and Sports Science

Willa Ma

Biomedical Engineering; minoring in Neuroscience and Exercise and Sports Science