New York's Ryan Callahan tries to chase down Toronto's Kris Versteeg. (Photo by Graig Abel/NHLI via Getty Images)
In most sports, speed is the gold standard of performance. Speed gives you the edge. However, to get faster, athletes mainly train their muscle mass, as if being fast is only a matter of muscle power. Well, it’s not that simple. In fact, speed should be considered as the physical, neurological, behavioral and psychological reaction of an athlete to a specific context.
Let me illustrate my point. As a scientist, I test the speed of athlete “X” in my lab. The test reveals he’s amongst the best in his discipline. However, reality appears quite different - he doesn’t even rank in the top 10 in his sport. Why not? Because speed isn’t only the result of training, it’s the reaction to a situation. In the lab, an athlete can feel secure (not too much pressure is put on him), so his body can function at an optimal level.
In competition, pressure to perform becomes part of the reality of the athlete. When this pressure exceeds his capacity to cope, his brain starts focusing on details and thus loses its ability to analyze the situation from an overall perspective. Under pressure, the athlete’s mind also resorts to its more analytical side. As a result, he starts to mentally talk to himself, doubt invades his brain - he is thinking rather than reacting instinctively. At this point, it’s too late; this rational interpretation of his world slows him down.
The brain generates the electrical stimulation that allows your muscles to contract. Many factors affect an athlete’s ability to reach full speed:
• Pressure felt
• What is at stake
• Inability to detect information in the environment
• Internal language
• Inability to predict the actions of the opponents
All this destabilizes optimal brain activity. The speed at which muscle contraction can be generated is dampened by your mental activity. The brain-muscle connection isn’t as direct as it can be. You’re wasting a lot of time.
What we call an “open loop” refers to a state where your body reacts on its own. You’ve trained for so many years that movements have become natural, you don’t have to think and you adjust naturally to any situation. It’s what many call “the zone.” There’s nothing weird about this - it’s the result of a brain state. The more you control this state, the faster you will be.
The brain is our interface with the world. It represents no more than a huge amount of electrical activity to which we personally give meaning. Once your muscle mass has been trained to full power, managing your mental activity is what will allow you to reach top speed.
Remember, speed starts with your mind…
Dr. Denis Boucher holds a Ph.D. degree in experimental medicine. He manages an exercise physiology laboratory in Quebec and a human performance consulting company in the United States. He has conducted the pre-season on-ice fitness evaluation program for the Philadelphia Flyers. His clinical expertise is in the fields of exercise physiology, nutrition and sport performance. He currently hosts and produces a weekly radio show on XM172 entitled ‘The Little Scientific World of Doc Boucher’ (in French). He will blog for THN.com throughout the season.