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Athletes And Brain Damage

Some of you may think that this title is very misleading at first but you will realize very quickly that it isn’t, but however is a different perspective on the word “brain damage.” Let’s put athletes into two categories:

1) Listens to coach 2) Does not listen to coach

Those of you with high cortical metabolism will say that is not is a good classification of athletes and that there is a wide spectrum and you are correct. Life is a spectrum. Everything in life is more of a measure of standard deviation from the norm towards opposing sides of the spectrum. The “normal” person rates usually somewhere in the middle of two extremes and this is known to be “good” or “normal” (ie. What the majority does). Sound waves, visual waves (photons) and all other aspects of life can, in some way, be correlated to this over simplified view of life. So back to the brain damage. We have two parts to the brain generally speaking. The old reptilian brain that determines what our primal needs are, and then the neocortex which is the front of the brain that determines what we “want” and what the “right thing” to do is long term compared to short term gains. The hindbrain is more of a “knee jerk” reaction and the frontal cortex is the executive functioning part of the brain based on what you are taught from your environment. When someone hits you and your heart rate increases and your pupils dilate that is a the hindbrain quickly reacting ready to fight or take flight. When you are asked to name the alphabet backwards that is the executive functioning of the neocortex. Now that basic anatomy is out of the way let’s get to the fun. Studies show that as you grow up the neocortex increases it’s neurons and the efficiency of its signal sending capabilities (myelination, etc) and by the time you are 25 years old you have completed that growth and now are on a path to irreversible brain damage. After the age of 25 these neurons start to break down slowly and by the time you are 70/80/90 years old you have a much harder time doing the executive functions that you did when you were 25. This is fundamentally brain damage at a standard deviation of 1. (Ie. Normal) This is why when you turn 18 the courts trial you as an “adult”. They determine by the time you are 18 your neocortex works pretty well and you can’t say that you “didn’t know” the rules of the environment. Adults who claim to not know that they are doing criminal behavior use the McNaughton Defense which was first used in approx. 1840 when Daniel McNaughton tried to kill the Prime Minister of England. It basically means that you claim to have brain damage so the part of the brain that would normally tell you not to do something illegal does not work.

There is a lot more to that concept but let’s move on. Simply put, if you have criminal deviant behavior it is strongly and repeatedly correlated with brain damage in different parts of the brain. One fun test that a psychologist would do is described below: The M and M Test The psychologist will have M & M's in his or her hand (Candy). One hand will have one M & M and the other would have 5 M & M’s. The psychologist asks the patient to pick one and the normally the patient will pick the hand with more M & M’s. Upon doing so, the psychologist takes that hand away quickly and just gives the patient 1 M & M. After a few repetitions most people figure out it is a trick and start to pick the hand with only 1 M & M in hopes of then getting the hand with 5 M & M’s (reverse psychology). A person with frontal damage to the brain does not figure this out. It falls under the category of executive function and reasoning/problem solving such as the reverse alphabet test mentioned earlier. In some cases patients will actually verbally describe they know what the trick is but still reach for the hand with 5 M and M’s which shows that at some level they know the trick but the motor cortex is not connected properly to follow through with the reasoning. Other studies show that when you are a teenager your frontal lobe is still not developed so when you give a child/ teenager a higher then anticipated reward, the dopamine is released in greater amounts and the neurons are easily excited. Likewise if you give a teenager a lower then expected reward then the dopamine response is lower then average and this is where you get mood swings. As you get older the brain develops and can regulate the dopamine response at a more efficient rate and you seem to “mellow out”, also known as "growing up". So coaches when you are working with teenagers keep this in mind. Give your athletes clear goals and conditions to rewards and do not deviate. Telling teenage athletes one thing but not following through has much more effect then you realize and it warps their brain because the frontal lobe which registers reward and punishment is still not complete. Do not put errors into that development at an early age if you can help it. Another caveat of this is that by giving too much reward you are giving false expectations to a developing mind. Do not spoil the athletes. The terrible state of our society can be, at least partly, correlated with the increased apparent need to give kids what the “parents didn’t have”. I get it. Your parents come out of WW2 economy and just being alive is considered a blessing. People love to 'give' more to their offspring in the hope they have a better life. But… by “giving a better life” without really earning it, we are setting them up for failure and the expectation of reward. The immature neocortex takes that information and applies it to the rest of the world, that is not as “lenient” let say, then the child becomes confused. “Why won’t these people give me big dopamine release, like my parents do?”. The kid gets angry at first, but inevitably losses the battle and then internalizes there is something wrong with them and then depression hits and that is a rabbit hole no one needs to go down. They say depression is on the rise but really what is happening is that uncontrolled reward and punishment systems are on the rise. So coaches, please for the sake of the athletes, just be clear and unless they really earned it, do not let the athlete have a reward. It is unhealthy, literally. We have already looked at several examples of how brain development and brain damage are key factors in human control from an authority perspective whether you are a coach or a government official. Let’s slightly change focus now that the groundwork has been laid out.

-MRI (Red=Glucose Burning/Dark= No Glucose Burning) One very common method for determining brain function in humans is by measuring how much glucose the brain uses at each part. This is how a MRI machine basically works. The brain is divided into many many many…many parts and each part of the brain with no real boarder. It is similar to how a different village or town in a country all work towards the same economy but all do different things with no real boarder besides the fact that once you get into a new town, you know it because it looks different. Studies show that athletes who have higher metabolism, ie. more brain use in areas of the neocortex are more prone to follow rules. From the example with the courts, we can see that following the rules in society is no different then following rules in the gym club. “You” (Or what ever part of your brain you think makes you “you”) may think it is, but your brain doesn’t. Deviance in society is the same as deviance in the gym club. Studies show that people with high neuron metabolism tend to be more orderly and prepared and indirectly judgmental. This is because the neocortex is the part of your brain that calculates environment. Studies show that people that grow up in higher socioeconomic backgrounds have higher executive brain function because the parents generally have the ability to provide more stability for that offspring. In doing so these people tend to become more openly judgmental because that is what they are use to. This is the athlete that “listens” more and would be on the right side of our fun little spectrum above. The other side of the spectrum is associated with lower metabolism and overall less function from the neocortex. The left side of the spectrum has been associated with those who love adrenaline. Some hypothesize that is why they want adrenaline, because the neurons are less active and by actively seeking out adrenaline they increase the excitation. These people always want something new. They are known to have lower levels of dopamine as well. Dopamine is the catalyst hormone that pushes you to make a decision instead of not doing anything (over simplified). It could be hypothesized that by actively seeking adrenaline, it would balance out the equation a bit more. Some of you who may think you can read between the lines may be thinking that basically a person with higher executive function is smart and an adrenaline junky is dumb. That is incorrect. Well, actually it depends on how you define smart. If you think that by having a high metabolism in the neocortex, (i.e., following the rules) is a sign of your increased IQ, leading to better success in the real world, then I would have to laugh. Why?

They say that "A students work for C students". This is because following the rules is great if you want to stay within 1 deviation of society. However, these are not the successful people. My definition of a truly successful person is one that is remembered like Alexander The Great. Studies show that people only remember the highs and the lows and not much in between. This concept is easily transferable to economy. The stimulus people remember the most are the ones that happen rarely. Evolution shows us this because a stimulus that you do not hear often is, “We are under attack!!!” The brain is ready to defend it’s self quickly compared to worrying about what is on Netflix. The athlete who simply follows the rules is not guaranteed to be a successful athlete or smart. It just means they can be told what to do easier. If they have a good coach this can lead to great results. The same can be said for the other side of the spectrum. The athlete who does not listen and needs a stimulus all the time is more likely to try new things which lead to improvement as well but may need to be more independent. As you can see, there is no right or wrong, just an understanding of the mental map. It is like Pokemon. You have a set of attributes and you have to pick the type of Pokemon you have and what skills it has. Some are good in some environments and some are strong from a statistics point of view, but put in the wrong environment they fail. “Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.” -Albert Einstein So coaches please take some of the concepts here and think about it. Many coaches tell themselves they contemplate all these kinds of concepts but, let’s just say, they keep reaching for more M and M’s. There is no good or bad athlete, just a coach who knows what environment to create around each one. The math is the same in terms of learning the skills which is very easy. The tougher part of coaching is creating that environment for the athletes who are all on different parts of that spectrum. Thanks!

Greg Roe

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