The Mysteries Of The Teenage Sports Brain

By Dan Peterson

It seems so easy sitting in the stands.  Watching their high school athlete, parents are perplexed when bad decisions are made on the field, not to mention at home and school.  What seems so logical to coaches and fans, especially over the age of 30, is often lost on the adolescent brains of prep players.  Do they just not care?  Will it take even more practice and drills to get it right?  Could it be teenagers are just wired differently?  According to a social cognition expert, that’s exactly what’s happening.

Michael Own, Liverpool

Traditional child development theory takes us from birth to the beginning of the awkward years that are triggered by the physical changes of puberty.  While research on teenagers has documented their increased risk-taking behavior, the complicated reasons why adolescents think differently are still being discovered.

“The idea that the brain is somehow fixed in early childhood, which was an idea that was very strongly believed up until fairly recently, is completely wrong,” claims Sarah-Jayne Blakemore, Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience at University College London, in a recent interview at Edge.org.  “There’s no evidence that the brain is somehow set and can’t change after early childhood. In fact, it goes through this very large development throughout adolescence and right into the 20s and 30s.”

Blakemore’s lab at UCL has been studying what they call the “social brain” or how we learn to understand and interact with other people.  What better place for improved connections with those around you than on the playing field?  As a team battling against an opponent, players become connected and feed off of not only the tactical play of others but the emotional ups and downs of the game.

As an example, take a look at the photo above of Michael Owen, back in his Liverpool days, immediately after missing a wide open goal.  Instantly, Owen (lying on the ground), his teammates and just about every fan dressed in red react with an eerily similar expression.  Of course, the fans in yellow, supporting the visiting team, have a completely separate reaction.

Blakemore used this example in a recent TED talk titled, “The Mysterious Workings of the Adolescent Brain.”  This connectedness shows our ability to instantly read the emotions of others and how our social brains react to a situation.  ”The picture shows us how instinctive and automatic social responses are,” explains Blakemore.  “Within a split second, everyone is doing the same thing with their arms and faces.”

Specifically for teenagers, this social brain development can be seen in the physiological changes their brains go through during this period.  Blakemore points to an ongoing study at the National Institute of Mental Health in Bethesda where they have been performing fMRI brain scans on children, adolescents and adults over ten years.  The same people return once a year for a new scan, resulting in over 8,000 scans from 2,000 people.

One of the surprising findings is that our brain’s gray matter, consisting of neuronal cell bodies, neuropil, glial cells and capillaries, grows rapidly through our childhood but then shrinks dramatically in our teen years right into our twenties.  At the same time, our white matter, made up of the actual axon fiber connections between brain cells, has an offsetting increase.  The white color comes from myelin, the insulating wrap around these fibers.

Through experiments in her own lab, Blakemore has identified specific brain regions that adults and teenagers use when they are thinking about other people, in other words, being social.  What is surprising is that teens use more of their prefrontal cortex than adults, who use temporal regions on the sides of their brain.

So, why the difference?  “That’s something that we’re looking at now,” responded Blakemore in the Edge interview.  “One possibility is that they’re using different cognitive strategies to do these tasks. They’re doing the tasks, even though they’re doing them as well, they’re doing them in a different way. It’s possible that at different ages you use different brain circuitry to perform the same task because you’re using a different kind of cognitive strategy. You might, for example, when you think about social situations as an adult, you might be doing this automatically by just triggering automatically some kind of social script, whereas maybe in adolescence you’re more reliant on your own experiences of these situations.”

The bottom line for coaches and parents; teenagers truly do think differently.  They process social interactions with teammates and opponents on a different level than adults.  There is no magic coaching philosophy or method guaranteed to succeed.  However, the realization and acceptance that the teen athletic brain is evolving and growing is a start.

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