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Tim Webb’s On Sports Psychology Column: Altering ‘pathways’ may be necessary

If you find conversations regarding brain functioning difficult to swallow, don’t worry; this is not your ordinary chit-chat.

Everyone knows that the capacity at which we function day to day is based almost solely on our level of brain functioning. Athletes have a short shelf life if their functioning doesn’t suit the demand. Have you ever thought why? Besides blaming training and coaching, what other issues could be present that are keeping our athletes and children from performing to their potential? Take into consideration what types of trauma your athlete has seen or experienced in his or her life and what impact that has had on his or her brain functioning and ability to make decisions in competition.

Now, trauma to one person may not be trauma to another. I’ve seen rape victims who were higher-functioning than individuals who had their homes foreclosed on. We process that information differently. I’ve seen athletes who lost family members to disasters function better than athletes who just broke up with their sweethearts. It’s their perspective, and the impact these events have on their success is huge.

Many of the athletes and mental health clients I work with are above the age of 11. This means that the experiences they have had in the past have already made permanent impressions on their brains. Like a hand in semi-cured concrete, it’s permanent. This makes changing thought patterns and behaviors more difficult. That functioning settles in the brain’s cortex and neocortex like filling in the dimples in a golf ball.

What in the world is a cortex or neocortex, anyway? I recently got that question recently while talking to an athlete about regulation of his emotions on the baseball field. It was a bit surprising, but then again, he probably hadn’t learned it yet. The better question was whether his parents knew what they were and how they functioned. I’ll let you know

how the follow-up goes.

Neurological pathways are like roots on a tree. If watered (nurtured), the roots will grow strong, provide stability and become the passageway for nutrition. If deprived of nurturing, the roots become weak and provide little stability at times when it is needed the most, such as during storms.

Our children and athletes are no different. During the most impressionable years of our athletes’ lives, the information retained in the cortex and neocortex is vital to functioning in athletics and in life.

The cortex and neocortex continue to develop from age 2 through early adulthood. Experiences and contacts with people around us have a direct impact on how this area of the brain develops. It’s responsible for self-awareness and self-image. Who doesn’t know how important these two areas are to the overall success of our young athletes? Show me an athlete who is not self-aware or has a poor self-image, and I will show you an athlete who is not reaching his or her potential in and out of the athletic arena.

This area of the brain also functions as the hub for social and emotional competence, insight, self-reflection, morality and spirituality.

The brain is much like the progression in sports when learning a new movement, such as raising your right elbow when you are up to bat. Those mechanics take time to learn, and when accomplished, your hitting is better. The brain is no different. From the brainstem to the cortex, systems are functioning, growing and developing.

One doesn’t grow successfully and reach his or her maximum potential without the other. It’s no different from saying the spotter on the bottom of a cheerleading pyramid is too small to hold the weight and it comes tumbling down. Once that pyramid starts, that motion is in place and the dysfunction begins. The difference between the pyramid and the brain is that it can be rebuilt quickly and with basic problem-solving skills.

Building new neurological pathways isn’t that easy. When they’re closed, that highway is full of potholes and is no longer suitable for cars to travel. Get it? Emotional regulation becomes difficult, stress responses become abnormal, attention and focus start to drift, regulation of motor skills becomes difficult, and so on.

So when thinking about working with athletes, as coaches and parents, try to focus some time on how that process is built. Figure out why they’re not “getting it.” Try something new and mold your teaching, parenting and coaching style to where they are, not where you want them to be. Use unique methods to learn the same skills. I promise you this will create better results.

Tim Webb is the founder of Agency for Sports and Individual Enhancement and works as an adolescent and family counselor at the National Counseling Group. He can be reached at

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