Don't neglect working out your brain along with your other muscles

Athletes spend many hours honing skills in their particular sports while building strength and stamina. More recently, they are devoting time toward establishing more efficient thought processes and better performance.

The human brain is made up of nerve cells that are organized in networks that interact to perform specific functions. These specialized networks influence all activities.

The simplest action is a reflex. A reflex consists of movement that doesn’t require any thought. The neurons necessary communicate directly through the spinal cord without any cognitive input.

One goal of training is to eliminate as many variables as possible while performing the specific task. This type of mental training can take several forms and coaches are now employing a variety of professionals to work with their teams.

Visualization is probably the best-known technique. Visualization involves repeatedly anticipating an outcome or situation before it occurs. Kickers see the ball going through the uprights, golfers visualize a perfect shot and football defenders see themselves making a crucial tackle.

Mindfulness is a technique used to relax the mind. It is essentially a skill used to eliminate all interfering thoughts and allowing concentration only on the task at hand.

Like most athletic skills, these techniques become most effective when they are practiced. Repeatedly applying visualization and mindfulness with a discipline such as yoga can dramatically improve performance.

“Yoga and mindfulness are a powerful combination of physical, mental and spiritual skill work that compliments and enhances sport-specific conditioning,” states Carol Pandiscia, a yoga and mindfulness instructor who works with high-level athletes.

Although these skills have been frequently applied in sports, they are effective instruments for success in any profession.

Dr. Alessi is a neurologist in Norwich and serves as an on-air contributor for ESPN. He is director of UConn NeuroSport and can be reached at

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