Conditioning the brain so that high performance becomes a natural mindset
Mental conditioning for high performance.
When it comes to a football player playing at a high performance level consistently, conditioning plays an important part.
One of the most famous early example of conditioning came from Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov. His research was around around 'conditioned reflex'. He used a buzzer to announce to his dogs that there was food for thm to eat. After conditioning this response to the buzzer he found that even with no food the dogs would salivate and automatically prepare themselves for eating with the buzzer alone.
So what is condioning?
At its very basic conditioning is learning. When you're conditioned to do something you're able to do it automatically. It becomes a natural part of who you are. If you condition a certain skill it would mean that you were able to do it instinctively and subconsciously.
As a footballer most of your game is played with this conditioned instinct. There is only a small amount that you do consciously and there is a very good reason for this.
The enormous power of your subconscious/unconscious:
Your conscious thinking can cope with about 40 bits of information every second. Whereas you can subconsciously process 11 million bits of information per second! (Wilson, 2004).
If we think about that for a moment, this would mean that the part of your brain that is responsible for your instinctive and conditioned responses is approximately 975,000 times more powerful than your conscious thinking!
It makes sense then that as a footballer you condition your skills over and over again on a football pitch. In this way you condition what you do to a high standard and it gets stored as a resource in your subconscious making it automatic and instinctive.
Take learning to kick or control a ball. No matter where you are in your career right now there will have been a time where these actions were almost impossible. You’d be clumsy. Your coordination between what you wanted to do and what your body could actually do were not the same.
Neurosciences best answer to how we go from clumsy to conditioned excellence is as follows:
In our brains we have billions of neurons. When we learn something new these neutrons create a weak connection known as a neuropathway. These connections if not practiced can weaken and disappear. However, if we practice what we have learnt over and over again (conditioning) we strengthen these neuropathways so that the connections become stronger and more established.
Once we have conditioned these actions enough, the nueuropathways become so strong and established that they can fire automatically.
When it comes to kicking a football these neurons need to be conditioned so that they know the right way and the right timings to do things such as contract your quadricep, relax you hamstrings and at the same time keeping all of your core muscles contracted, whilst utilising other muscles such as the aductor, other muscles in your lower leg, ankle and your core.
All of what is happening is immensely complicated, however, we are able to make light work of this as we condition the movements and responses.
.As a high level footballer, if someone passes the ball you can do all of this in a smooth, fluid motion without even consciously thinking about it. But, there will have been a time when (even for you), this action was anything but smooth and fluid.
The reason why you do what you do so well now is that you’ve conditioned yourself through hours and hours of practice, so that the europathways involved in doing this have become strong and established. It’s now a conditioned instinct that you are able to do without consciously thinking about it.
The brain is very complex. So when we condition ourselves to be able to perform this simple action of kicking a ball it has created thousands upon thousands of strong neuropathways in the brain so that these functions can occur all by themselves.
As you keep repeating the function and training the function, you’ll naturally get better and better as all of these neuropathways become stronger and connected. They link up so that all of the required muscle contractions, the judgement of the ball and the various other functions happen in a brilliantly synchronised pattern. The more that you condition yourself, the better the execution of the skill. This is why footballers spend hours and hours on the training ground, physically conditioning themselves to be the very best.
Now we’ve established what happens in the conditioning phase from a physical point of view let’s look at it from a mental / mindset / psychological point of view.
When we choose to think confident thoughts or thoughts that give us belief in ourselves these thoughts also begin a similar conditioning process in our brains. Our thoughts create neuropathways and strengthen and weaken others.
Conditioning ourselves to be filled with confidence, filled with self belief and determination is simply the act of repeating these thoughts and feelings. As these thoughts and feelings are having this impact on your neurons and their pathways you’re actually physically changing your brain.
That is really important for you as a football player so I will say that again. Your thoughts physically change your brain.
If you were to make sure that your thoughts are consistently empowering you would be conditioning your brain to naturally and automatically be empowered as your default setting.
There is a lot of work that I do with elite level football players that conditions players to think better so that they have more confidence, more belief, more drive and determination. Even more enjoyment of the game. All of these have been shown to improve performance (Feltz et al, 2001).
So just like any conditioning, we can condition confidence, self belief, drive and determination and a whole host of other brilliant traits to be physically wired into your brain so they become automatic and a natural part of who you are.
If you were not already aware of this then I’m sure you’ll agree that it’s pretty exciting stuff. It opens up a world where you can improve and get better far quicker. You’ll also reach the levels in your game that were not previously going to be accessible to you without knowing this and putting it into practice.
However, there is more!
When we talk about conditioning confidence, self belief, drive and determination these are psychological and it stands to reason (and research) that we can improve these aspects of our game and our lives in this way.
But…. The following can also be conditioned:
You physically condition various aspects of your game on the training ground. Everything from tactical awareness, defending set pieces to finishing past the goal keeper.
From what we’ve just talked about you know that you can create (and strengthen) neuropathways associated with aspects such as confidence with your thoughts. Could the same be done with neural pathways for physical movements and
The answer to this isn’t just ‘yes’. The answer is ‘yes… and it extremely powerful!’.
For example there was a study that looked at people in a driving simulation.
The first group were told to drive a lap of the course as quickly as possible. Then after a short break they were told to do another lap. As we would expect the time of the second lap improved. There is the physical conditioning.
As they learned from the first lap they became more effective at completing the second lap. They were slightly more conditioned to the task. On average their time improved by 0.12%.
The results from the second group get very interesting:
The second group did exactly the same. However after the first lap instead of resting they visualised themselves driving the route. In essence they took the time to mentally condition the physical act of driving the route.
They then performed the second lap. Just like you would expect they also improved. However, their improvement was 3.11%.
This is actually more than 25 times better than the group that did no visualising!
Think of that for just a moment and think of what improving and developing this skill could do for your career. Being able to mentally condition what you do in training and on a match day to reach better and higher levels that far exceed what you are capable of right now.
There has been a lot of research into these areas including Pascual-leone et al 1995, Jackson et al 2003, Debarnot et al 2011. Their research found that by this kind of mental conditioning there are changes in the parts of the brain associated with the movements performed. Just the same what would happen if this was physically trained and conditioned receptively to a high level. Jeannerod, M. (1994).
Interesting to note is that there is also a very strong activation of the prefrontal cortex. Because of how advanced the prefrontal cortex is, and its involvement in higher, complex thinking and planning it could be inferred that it is the involvement of this part of the brain that makes mental conditioning such a powerful and advanced way of improving. The catalyst that sets the footballer up for accelerated improvement when they combine mental conditioning with physically performing.
Whenever I talk about this with people and even now as I write this article it baffles me that in 2018 this type of mental conditioning is not being used as routinely as any other physical training. In an industry where a squad of players can literally be worth billions, but could be worth billions more if these techniques were adapted. My question is how long will it take for teams to implement the highly effective techniques of mental conditioning?
On one hand it’s bad news that this mental conditioning is not being utilised like it should be. However on the other hand it’s absolutely brilliant news for the footballer who wants to accelerate his game and his performances beyond his opponent and the players around him. I have no doubt that mental conditioning will play a core part to all clubs and players in the future so that everyones ability is accelerating forward and their performances are consistently at a higher and higher level.
However, whilst this remains the exception rather than the norm, it’s an opportunity for those players who have aspirations to be the very best that they can be to set the bar higher and reach levels that were until now going to be out of reach.
If you really need to convince yourself any more that conditioning your brain is at least as important as conditioning your body let me ask you a question. What is your brain responsible for in your career? In fact, let me turn that around. Can you think of anything that you do on or off the pitch where the most important part of your body for carrying that function out is not your brain?
Isn’t it time that you took your brain seriously in your career?
Debernot, U., Clerget., and Olivier, E. (2011). Role of the primary motor cortex in the early boost in performance following mental imagery training. PLoS ONE.
Feltz, D.L. & Lirgg, C. D. (2001). Self-efficacy Beliefs of Athletes, Teams and Coaches. Handbook of Sport Psychology. 2nd.
Jackson P. L., Lafleur M. F., Malouin F., Richards C. L., Doyon J. (2003). Functional cerebral reorganization following motor sequence learning through mental practice with motor imagery.Neuroimage 20 1171–1180
Jeannerod, M. (1994). The representing brain - neural correlates of motor intention and imagery. Behav. Brain Sci. 17, 187–202.
Pascual-Leone, A., Nguyet, D., Cohen, L. G., Brasil-Neto, J. P Cammarota. A., and Hallet, M. (1995). Modulation of muscle responses evoked by transcranial magnetic stimulation during the acquisition of new fine motor skills. J. Neurophysio. 74, 1037-1045
Wilson, T. (2004). Strangers to Ourselves - Discovering the Adaptive Unconscious. Belknap Press World.