Training The Brain For Expertise

Our brain is the most complex object we know about. It contains about 200 billion neurons, sending constant neural impulses between them. But how can the brain be trained for ‘expertise’, meaning the growth of special skills and knowledge such a playing an instrument or excelling at a sport?

First off, most research shows the extraordinary power of practice. The key to developing expertise in sports is a specific type of practice – according to Ericsson, a Swedish professor of Psychology. It is the so called ‘deliberate practice’, which aims at purposeful and single-minded practice to improve skills, ideally under the guidance of specialist instruction. Ericsson explains that most people practice that what is already effortless to them, but the very best type of practice instead is to make sustained efforts to learn something we can’t do well or not (yet) at all.

An area of such deliberate, single-minded practice is demonstrated in the training of top athletes - especially in tennis and cricket - who have to learn to ’see’ the ball played at them at a speed that physically can’t be seen by the eye. It takes about 100 milliseconds for a neural impulse to travel from the eye to the brain and then another 100 milliseconds to send a neural motor impulse from the brain to the muscle. For ball sports such as tennis and cricket where balls travel at ultra-high speed, the players can’t actually ‘see’ the balls directed at them due to this 200-millisecond delay in noticing/seeing it, so how do top players (learn to) bypass these limits of human information processing?

Research by Sean Muller, Professor at the University of Queensland, showed that an important aspect of ‘expertise’ in athletes is that they – thanks to endless hours of training - are able to gain knowledgeanticipationenabling them to read early signals or advance cues from their opponents, such as minute limb movements and body position that anticipate the delivery and trajectory of the ball coming at them. This way the delayed visual delivery can be circumvented as the athlete becomes an expert in already knowing in advance where a 65-85mph (tennis) ball will land or a 100mph cricket ball is being bowled.

Neuroimaging shows the effect of expert practice in top athletes; their brains unsurprisingly show much greater activation in the attention and motor skills regions of the brain than less high performing athletes. Athletes can also learn to ‘see and feel’ their skills in their imagination and enhancing them visually. Equally, their skills & motor memories – when having been practised for hours before sleep – seemingly continue to improve in the brain during the hours of sleep as a form of ‘off-line’ learning’, an amazing finding by Matthew Walker, who states that “it is not practice that makes perfect, but practice followed by a good night’s sleep that makes perfect”.

For amateur sports, especially team sports, the expert training lies in the ability to read cues from fellow players without having to shout as well as the ability to spatially place the opponents and to understand their strategies and speed. There is, for example, such a thing as football IQ, which is defined as having good executive function; the ability to plan and execute an action, such as to pass or not to pass or to shoot.

Whatever the level of sports you play today, it is dead certain that the more you practice the better you get. Things you can’t do yet is because you have not practiced them. Simple. Sports coaches – good ones – play a huge role in enhancing skills, even in amateur sports. Expertise is a skill that can be learned! So, if you want to be the next Williams or Nadal, the best way to start is to start practising; your brain will receive a solid ‘skills’ boost from all that practice, not to mention the increased oxygen to the brain during sports practice. A win-win for your ever more clever brains.

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