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Denis Boucher's Blog: How training your brain helps performance

Alex Ovechkin, one of the NHL's flashiest players, has 23 goals in 60 games this season. (Photo by Steve Babineau/NHLI via Getty Images)

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Alex Ovechkin, one of the NHL's flashiest players, has 23 goals in 60 games this season. (Photo by Steve Babineau/NHLI via Getty Images)

As an athlete, you spend many hours a week training to improve your fitness level and, hopefully, your performance. Even if you’re one of the fittest athletes in your field, you may find you’re no match for the athlete next to you if you don’t have a capacity that is very under-recognized, but highly valuable: attention.

Your brain rules everything from reaction time to motor control. Without attention, you’re always a tiny fraction of a second too late. Worse yet, no standard physical training can help you. Why not? Because attention is a limited capacity.

Because of the overwhelming amount of information your brain receives, for you to send a precise motor command to your body, you have to choose where to focus your attention, decide if it’s a good choice and make the decision to ignore information you find irrelevant. More amazingly, you must do it in real time and constantly change your focus of attention in order to adapt to an ongoing and ever-changing reality.

Now, imagine the following situations:

• You focus your attention at the wrong place;
• You focus your attention at the right place, but a fraction of a second too late;
• You focus your attention at the right place and at the right moment, but your attention shifts away because other information suddenly appears relevant to you;
• You focus your attention at the right place and at the right moment, but get distracted just when it is time to score.

You may be on the ice, but you’re out of synch. How can you train yourself to get “in synch” in such a fast and constantly changing reality? Here’s what you can do.

Master every possible move a hockey player has to perform on the ice and repeat them so often they become automatic in every situation you can encounter. Thus, you don’t have to think about them anymore. When you don’t have to think about your body on the ice, your brain has more freedom and can process more information coming from your surroundings.

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Learn from failure: analyze situations where you were “out of synch” as often as possible. You will then build “experience” and your brain will learn how to react automatically to a wide variety of situations. If you think or get distracted, it’s already too late.

Your eyes are the primary source of focus of attention. But the sounds that surround you allow you to get a kind of 3D picture in your brain of what’s going on. Can you “see” in your mind’s eye where your teammates and opponents are on the ice? If you look at the net, can you keep its exact location in your mind if you stop looking at it?

As strange as it may seem, being an athlete involves not only training your body, but your brain as well. When you’re in excellent shape, as all athletes should be, your body allows you to keep up with other athletes. But your brain is the only tool that can keep you “in synch.” In other words your brain gives you the power to do the right thing, at the right moment…and that can be the toughest thing on Earth to do.

So, don’t forget to train your brain.

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.

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