The nervous system is a complicated system of different types of nerves and cells that send and receive messages between the brain and spinal cord and different parts of the body. In a nutshell, the purpose of the nervous system is to sense what is happening inside and outside the body and to react promptly, appropriately and intelligently so that you survive.
The nervous system is the fastest system in the body and controls pretty much every bodily function, the brain is the gaffer or the big boss.
The nervous system can create high power, high speed, and yet skillful movements, but it will only do so as long as it considers the movement ‘safe’. We are wired for survival rather than performance. In order to get the most out of your brain and body you need to make the brain feel safe and focus on performance rather than just survival.
So what does this safe mean to the brain?
When the brain senses, or thinks it senses, damage, restriction, loss of sensory information (vision, touch or balance) or injury in the body, it can dampen down power to the muscles to ‘protect the body’.
The same goes for bones, if you brain senses you have weak bones, osteopenia or osteoporosis, it will not allow you to use the muscles associated to exert full power on the bones. Due to strict dieting and training, some professional athletes have osteopenia, so this is not just something ‘old ladies’ suffer from.
We are only as powerful as our brains allow us to be.
This is why so many athletes are now employing coaches who specialise in training the brain and nervous system, my friend Grant Hayes who specilised in nervous system and vision based training, has worked with BMX world champions, Olympic athletes, world class shooters, fighters, footballers and racing drives to give athletes the edge.
In sport nowadays, fractions of seconds are what decides who wins and who loses. Athletes need to be extremely precise and detailed in training to gain that tiny edge in order to win and a highly performing brain is what makes all the difference. A well functioning nervous system is key for EVERYONE who wants to perform well and feel good.
What Can be Expected From Training the Brain and Nervous System?
Nervous system based training allows
- Greater force production, skilled manoeuvring, power,
- Improved focus, jumping and landing
- Faster reflexes.
- More effective decision making processes
Many people report increased stamina and decreased overall tiredness due to a more efficient nervous system. In sport, players who train their nervous systems will see more ‘options’ more quickly. ‘See it first be first’.
Improving parts of the brain involved in vision, spatial awareness, balance and coordination allow athletes to see more of what’s coming at them and be aware of what’s around them. This key in sport, not only for winning but also for preventing injuries, concussions and being ‘ hit’.
Injuries for a pro athlete or in fact anyone who loves to move can mean no training for weeks and sometimes months. Traumatic brain injuries (TBIs) have damaged many sporting careers, such as Tiger Woods, but TBIs affect the rest of the population too and the military. Using a neurological approach with correct assessment and carefully choses exercises the brain and nervous system can be rehabilitated following a TBI or concussion.
One key aspect which separates us from animals, is key to our survival is our ability to predict. Your brain can imagine many possible scenarios so you can then make the best decision. The better your brain the faster it can predict and take action. With a better brain Information is stored, organised and applied effectively, this is relevant for productivity, motivation, positive mood driving, competitive sports, socialising or passing exams.
The Fundamentals of Neurology 101
What happens when we stimulate the brain?
This is called the 1-2-3-4 of brain function. The brain receives an input, processes the input makes a decision and produces an output.
Input. This comes from eyes, ears, skin, joints and receptors in the body. The quality and quantity of the input or signals matters. Am I getting good signals? Am I getting enough of them?
Processing and Decision. This is the brain attaching meaning to the incoming input, comparing it to all other pasts experiences and then making a decision. This is where the speed at which you process the information comes into play. Can I make the most intelligent decision in the fastest possible time?
Output. Most commonly it is movement, but can also be physiological responses
Our ‘Biological’ GPS Systems
To allow you to move powerfully, gracefully and safely through your environment, your brain always has to know
- What can you see
- Which way is up
- Where you are in space
- Where your head is in relation to your body
Your brain relies on sensory input to process and react to your environment. In the neural hierarchy the brain organises its sensory input system with vision at the top, vestibular/inner ear or balance being second and information from joints or proprioception being third.
This means the senses or skills we do not train often like the inner ear or the eyes are in fact the ones which the brain values, uses or relies on most. Many people, including athletes are ‘missing a trick’ or missing out on getting the edge by not training vision and the inner ear. This is one key aspect of a nervous system based approach and there are 100s if not 1000s of neurological exercises to tap into this potential. The premiership club Manchester United and others have incorporated sports vision into the players regimes with success.
Visual system and visual skills
The visual system is placed at the top because we are wired to survive and vision is vital for survival.
When discussing visual skills in sport or daily life, it is important to understand that vision is far mmore than just ‘seeing’ Vision is the complex organisation, integration and understanding of what is being seen.Vision is the processing of visual information.
Visual skills can affect athletic performance in a huge number of ways. In fact good vision is often what separates an elite athlete from a pro athlete. The other factor which separates an elite from a pro is the ability to perform under pressure, which is again is determined by the stability of the nervous system and brain.
Firstly, remember that skills we do not practise a lot can deteriorate as the pathway is less used by the brain, this is even more apparent after the age of 35. If you do not train your vestibular and visual system it will start to degrade, that’s for all of us not just athletes !
The skill of moving the eyes and visual skills include
- Moving eyes right to the edges of our ability
- Excellent peripheral vision ‘What can I see when I’m not looking at it’
- Converging — getting the eyes to co-ordinate movements together
- Moving the eyes at high speed from one moving object to the next
- Identifying moving objects quickly and the being able to judge their speed, trajectory and predict the next location
- Attaching meaning to incoming objects
- Tracking many moving objects at once
How well do your eyes move?
Excellent eye movements contribute to faster and more accurate processing of visual information. Always miss a ball or punch when its coming at you from a certain angle? Direction? Speed?
You can change that!
The vestibular system or balance system
The vestibular system receives input from the visual system and its job is to keep our eyes level while we are in motion.
The input from the vestibular system is what helps us know where we are in space. If vision is a vital component to that, and assuming we are now training our visual skills, how do we integrate this with vestibular training?
Training this system is the same as training any other skill. LOAD and specificity to drive plastic change and therefore structural change in the brain. Vestibular (and visual) skills are often the ones found most difficult by even elite athletes because they are almost never trained specifically or with load.
What trains the vestibular system
- Balancing without visual input (eyes closed)
- Turning your head in the opposite direction to where your eyes are looking (eg preparing for a pirouette in ballet or ice skating or spin kick in taekwondo)
- Moving the head on different axis at varying speeds with eyes open AND closed
- Moving your eyes when your head is still (visual input)
- Moving your head while your body is in motion (All sport!)
These all rely on the signal quality from the visual and vestibular systems and the signal integration of the information from these two systems. These two systems work together constantly and in orchestra. Disturbances in either system can drastically alter the signal quality and therefore the information your brain is relying on to orient you in your environment.
Orientation of your head and therefore your body in any sport or activity is pretty important. The information you receive has to be correct for you to be correct in your positioning. Without training these tiny skills how well can you rely on the bigger skills?
Brain based training
Another way to look at nervous system based training would be to work with specific parts of the brain. For today I will briefly introduce you to the cerebellum, ‘ The little brain behind the brain’.
The cerebellum is involved in the ABC of movement, which is accuracy, balance and coordination.
This ABC of movement is everything, arms, legs, spine eyes and tongues. Anything from eye movements and speech to playing sports and musical instruments. The cerebellum is like an integration center which works with the motor cortex and visual system to perform smooth, accurate, skillful movement and with the brainstem, eyes and inner ear to provide stability and tone to the relevant parts of the body.
FOR EXAMPLE: Chronic Hip pain or lower limb injures. The root cause may be poor input/output to the cerebellum
A poor firing cerebellum can result in:
- Weaker extensors on the same side.
- Ankle instability
- Back “goes” regularly with no apparent casue
- Piriformis syndrome
- Poor head stability which can impact visual and vestibular function.
- Internally rotated shoulder, tight quads, psoas and poor hip extension.
If an athlete or in fact anyone suffers from the above symptoms and have been to physios, chiropractors, doctors and nobody seems to be able to find anything wrong with the joints and muscles so the ‘proprioceptive system’ (which is 3rd on the neural hierarchy) then the root of the problem could be higher up in the neurological system.
There could be a problem with how the cerebellum is processing input and output or with the eyes or inner ear which provide the input. The next step would be locating the problems and using neurological exercises to re-train the brain, eye and inner ear. This, in a nutshell is what functional neurology is all about and why athletes are so keen on it.
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