It's relatively easy to spot the physical differences between, say, an Olympic rower and a couch potato. But it's the mind as much as the muscles that make a champion – so is it possible to pick an "elite brain" out of a crowd of ordinary grey matter?
That's the challenge that a team of psychiatrists and neuroscientists at the University of California San Diego have been grappling with for the past few years. In brain-imaging studies with subjects ranging from Navy SEALs to elite athletes, they've found a telltale pattern of activity in certain brain regions before, during, and after stressful situations that corresponds to a greater ability to stay focused and perform well under pressure.
The good news: You can train your brain just like a muscle. The latest results from the UCSD group, published in the journal Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, tested a surprisingly low-tech approach – an eight-week course in mindfulness training – and observed an enhancement in precisely the same brain patterns that distinguish elite performers from average controls.
Mindfulness is a form of meditation (or a state of mind) that emphasizes self-awareness, monitoring your thoughts and feelings without judgment. It's widely taught for stress reduction, but has long attracted interest from athletes. Famously Zen basketball coach Phil Jackson, for instance, introduced mindfulness to his championship teams in Chicago and Los Angeles in the 1990s and 2000s, and last month announced that he would bring the technique to the New York Knicks.
The UCSD researchers have gone a step further and developed a sports-specific version of mindfulness training called mPEAK: Mindful Performance Enhancement, Awareness and Knowledge.
"By studying the science of mindfulness and the neuroscience of peak performers," explains Dr. Steven Hickman, director of the UCSD Center for Mindfulness and co-developer of mPEAK, "we actually support people in training their brains – and bodies – to perform at optimal levels."
Neuroscience is a very hot topic these days, thanks in part to advances in brain imaging. But tools such as MRI scanners have an important limitation: You have to stay absolutely still while being scanned, which makes it difficult to study the brain's role in sports.
The UCSD team, led by Dr. Martin Paulus, developed an alternative way of testing how athletes responded to stress and discomfort. Their subjects were asked to complete a series of cognitive tests while breathing through a mask; the flow of oxygen through the mask was periodically disrupted, making it hard to breathe – a stressful (but not dangerous) experience.
For the average person, having their breathing restricted made their performance on the cognitive tests suffer. Top athletes, on the other hand, actually did better under stress.
The brain scans showed in the moments immediately before breathing restriction, the athletes had heightened activity in a region called the insular cortex, responsible for monitoring incoming signals from the rest of the body. For the control group, the insular cortex only lit up once breathing was already restricted. In essence, the athletes were able to anticipate the unpleasant feeling and avoid overreacting.
This sort of internal awareness and equanimity is exactly what mindfulness promotes, which is what prompted the researchers to run a study with eight platoons of U.S. Marine infantry recruits (281 individuals) preparing for deployment in Afghanistan. Half received eight weeks of mindfulness training; sure enough, those who received the training developed more "elite" brain patterns during the breathing test.
This research caught the interest of James Herrera, coach of the U.S. BMX racing team, who thought his athletes might benefit. At Herrera's urging, Hickman and postdoctoral researcher Dr. Lori Haase developed the mPEAK program, with Herrera's athletes as pilot subjects.
The program includes meditation and mindful movement, such as yoga, and emphasizes aspects of mindfulness that athletes are especially likely to struggle with, such as developing "self-compassion" to deal with perfectionism. This approach makes sense, says Dr. Matt MacDonald, a medical doctor and mental-performance coach who teaches a course on mindfulness for athletes at the Centre for Mindfulness Studies in Toronto.
"The main benefit athletes get from studying mindfulness is an increased ability to focus," MacDonald says.
Haase is currently analyzing data from the BMX racers. As with the Marines, brain scans from before and after the mPEAK program show better anticipation of "aversive challenges" such as breathing restriction, and quicker recovery afterward. In psychological testing, the athletes showed an improved ability to distinguish between feelings and bodily sensations.
For Herrera and his athletes, the outcome measures are more straightforward: "Their body language is calmer in the gate," Herrera says. "They move their hands less on the bars, and they get out of the gate a little faster." While such benefits are hard to quantify, athletes from the small mPEAK pilot group swept the top three spots at this year's U.S. BMX championships.
As word of the results spreads, Hickman and Haase have been fielding inquiries from around the world. They're hosting an eight-week program, open to the public, in San Diego starting in January. And they've also developed an intensive version of the course that involves one weekend on-site with follow-up sessions by video for another six weeks, which they're making available across the continent.
Ultimately, as Hickman points out, mindfulness isn't simply a tool you acquire once and then deploy as needed. It's a fundamental shift that, like physical fitness, requires constant upkeep. Even five or 10 minutes of practice a day can help, but the BMX athletes were doing at least 30 minutes twice a day.
"There is a dose-response relationship in mindful practice," Hickman says. "The more you practise, the more you reap the rewards."
Alex Hutchinson blogs about exercise research at sweatscience.runnersworld.com.