Introduction: The Athletic Brain

By Dan Peterson

Great athletes have a little something special that most of us don’t. Mostly, people tend to think about the physical gifts that set athletes apart–they are bigger, faster, more powerful, and exhibit grace and body control that is awe-insipring. While it isn’t surprising that the focus tends to be on what’s easily seen, this leaves out a great deal, because a lot of what makes great athletes special actually goes on inside their heads.

Whatever the sport, the most exhilerating moments–the ones that drop jaws and bring joy–involve creativity and intelligence that goes far beyond the merely physical. Rajon Rondo threading a ball through a crowded paint to a man who it doesn’t seem like he can even see, the strangely calm look in Tom Brady’s eyes as the pocket collapses around him while he scans the field for the open man: these moments blend physical and cognitive demands like almost nothing else.

The focus of this blog is this cognitive side of elite athletic performance, on what goes on inside the brain. For a long time, people could only talk about these things in vague, fuzzy terms. But research is beginning to tease out the unique threads that athletes must knit together to produce expert-level performance. Cognitive psychology research is illuminating the decision making processes of expert athletes, as well as how to train novices to become experts faster. At the same time, neuroscientists are taking images of athletes’ brains at work, which allows them to study how their brain structures and activity patterns are different. And with this knowledge we are beginning to take the first steps toward unlocking the mysteries of the athletic brain.

Our next post will get into some of the specific research on just what kinds of skills athletes possess that are superior. This will push us toward the ultimate mission of this blog: exploring the recent research in neuroscience and cognitive psychology as it relates to athletic excellence and expert performance. Along the way, we will interview people who are doing some of the most exciting work in this field, and take a look at training centers, teams and athletes who are working on methods to train for elite performance in ways that go beyond the traditional, physical realm. All of this is very new, and exciting, and Axon wants to wholeheartedly encourage an active debate about anything that we might post, say or believe. We hope that people will find this all interesting, and that it will spur more thought and innovation in the areas where high-level athletic performance, coaching and research converge.

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