Just An Hour Per Day Of Play Can Boost Young Brains

Imagine an activity that your kids could do after school every day that would improve their brain’s ability to make better decisions and solve problems.  Online cognitive drills? Special tutors? Actually, researchers at the University of Illinois have found that just an hour of fun, active play not only gets kids in better shape but significantly improves their cognitive functioning.
Plenty of previous studies have shown the link between fitness and better academic performance in the classroom but it wasn’t clear if this was a cause and effect relationship or just that smarter kids stayed in shape.  So, Charles Hillman Ph.D., kinesiology and community health professor at the University of Illinois, designed an ambitious project to test 221 students, aged 9 and 10, before and after a nine-month after school exercise program.

Training Your Eyes To Hit That Curveball

“Just keep your eye on the ball.”  Seems like simple enough advice for a young slugger at the plate.  That may work in the early years of Little League baseball when the pitches they see  have not yet cracked 50 mph.  But as the fastballs get faster and the change-ups get slower, having quick eyes and an even quicker perceptual brain is the only way hitters will be able to “hit it square” with a round bat and a round ball.   Which is exactly why psychology researchers at the University of California - Riverside (UCR) teamed up with the college’s varsity baseball players; to see if advanced visual perception training could help their at-bat performance.  While previous vision training research had focused on strengthening a player’s specific eye muscles, the results never transferred well to the batter’s box.  UCR professors Aaron Seitz and Daniel Ozer and recent Ph.D. graduate Jenni Deveau tried a more ambitious perceptual learning-based training program.

The Subliminal Power Of Positive Cheering

Young athletes often hear phrases of encouragement like, “dig a little deeper” or “you have to want it more than they do” or, ideally, “be mentally tough.”  For most kids, these words from a coach, a parent or a teammate go in one ear and out the other.  But, what if there was actually some scientific substance to the words?  Could the smiling, confident face of a coach delivering a pep talk actually have a subliminal effect on performance?  While the conscious brain may dismiss this positive talk, the subconscious mind may actually be putting it to work, according to new research from sports scientists at the University of Kent in England.

Sleep - The Next Best Thing To Practice

As usual, Mom was right.  Her advice to get to bed early is being confirmed by human performance researchers, sleep specialists and sports medicine doctors. Kids, especially young athletes, need more sleep.  
While common sense tells us that a lack of shut-eye will cause children to be grumpy from a lack of energy, new knowledge about the brain details how sleep affects not only their physiological functions but also their ability to learn new skills.
The more well-known sleep state known as REM (Rapid Eye Movement) is the dreammaker that tries to put our day’s activities into the context of our existing memories.  But first, our brain enters a deeper phase known as “slow-wave” sleep where embryonic neural networks solidify the new motor skills and knowledge learned earlier.
In an experiment last year, Masako Tamaki, a postdoctoral neuroscience researcher at Brown University, tried to pinpoint where in the brain these changes happen. "We were trying to figure out which part of the brain is doing what during sleep, independent of what goes on during wakefulness,” Tamaki explained. “We were trying to figure out the specific role of sleep."

For Aaron Rodgers, Practice Makes Perfect Motor Skills

During a Green Bay Packers win over the Atlanta Falcons earlier this season, Peter King, the NFL's dean of sportswriters, found a new level of respect for quarterback Aaron Rodgers.  Here's how King described one particular third and two play late in the first quarter:

"At the snap, Rodgers’ first look, a long one, was to the left for Nelson. Well covered. Quickly Rodgers turned to the right, to where Cobb was planting his foot in the ground three or four yards upfield and preparing to run a simple in-cut; at the same time, his cover man, cornerback Desmond Trufant, was going to have get through traffic to get to the ball if Rodgers was going to make the throw to Cobb."

"Rodgers was going to make the throw, all right. He was making it a millisecond after Cobb put his foot in the ground. Trufant’s good—quick and fast. As the ball rocketed toward Cobb, Adams knifed through traffic and got to Cobb just as the ball did. But the ball was placed perfectly in the oncoming Cobb’s gut. It got there just before Trufant did. Smash! Trufant barreled into Cobb, who cradled the ball to his chest. If the pass is wide or low or high, even by half a foot, the force of Trufant hitting Cobb would have dislodged the ball—no question. And Trufant played it perfectly. In fact, after he slammed into Cobb, Trufant got up triumphantly, feeling, I made the play! But Rodgers made the play. Gain of four. First down." The variables of speed, strength, environment and defenders constantly change yet, eventually, both QB and receiver need to get on the same wavelength. Often referred to as “motor memories”, athletes rely on thousands of practice repetitions to help them instantly adjust to new conditions on the same tasks - throw and catch a ball.  Now, researchers at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine have a better understanding of how we are able to do this.

How Video Games Can Improve Your Kids' Hand-Eye Coordination

Well, there goes that golden piece of parental logic.  For years, we’ve been arguing, imploring and threatening our kids to get off their Xbox, PS4 or even Wiis (are those still around?) and get outside for some fresh air and reality.  It isn’t healthy, we argued, to sit in front of that TV and play video games for hours.  While we still have the cardiovascular argument in our corner, new research just confirmed that gaming actually improves our kids’ ability to learn new sensorimotor skills.

Kids Who Move Can Grow Their Brain

If there is one thing that Charles Hillman wants parents and teachers to understand, it is the power of aerobic activity to improve the brains of young children.  From his Neurocognitive Kinesiology Lab at the University of Illinois, Professor Hillman has produced study after study showing not only cognitive improvement in the classroom but also the brain’s physical changes that occur when kids become more fit.  His latest research, in collaboration with postdoctoral researcher Laura Chaddock-Heyman and Arthur Kramer, Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience, reveals more compact white-matter tracts in the brains of a group of 9 and 10 year olds who were in better shape than their peers.

Maybe Your Kids Inherited Your Couch Potato Genes

On the road to sports success, young athletes need two ingredients, innate skills and the willingness and determination to get better.  We all know boys and girls who showed early promise that got them noticed but then didn’t have the drive to practice every day to develop that talent.  Often labeled lazy or unmotivated, the assumption was that they chose their own path by not working hard.  

However, new research shows evidence that genetics may play a role not only in the natural abilities of a developing superstar but also in their practice persistence and physiological response to training.

In his bestselling book The Sports Gene, David Epstein introduced us to the notion that your inherited genes may affect how your body reacts to training, both psychologically and physiologically.  He references an ongoing project at the University of Miami, known as Genetics of Exercise and Research (GEAR), whose stated purpose is: “to identify genetic biomarkers and environmental risk factors that are associated with variation in exercise response among participants who undergo a 12 week exercise protocol.” 

See The Game Through The Eyes Of The Quarterback

Going into the start of football season, there is plenty of expert commentary on what makes up the “right stuff” when evaluating quarterbacks. Everything from arm strength to height to foot skills to the size of their hands was measured and dissected to find the magic combination of variables. While the body mechanics of delivering a football on target are vital, QBs rely even more on their vision both before and after the ball is snapped.

It’s not just knowing where and when to look at an opposing defense but also understanding what to look for across the line. Defensive players are taught to “read the eyes” of the quarterback to gain clues to the play call. Coaches ask their QBs, “What are you seeing out there?” or “Where were you looking on that play?” Now, with the help of an innovative helmet cam, coaches, players and maybe even fans can get behind the mask and get answers to those questions.

How To Train The Runner's Brain - An Interview With Jason Fitzgerald

As productive human athletes, we just assume that we can knock down any walls put in front of us and conquer new feats of greatness if "we just put our mind to it."  Our conscious brain sets goals, gives pep talks and convinces us that with the right training plan, we can finish a race of any distance. 

But, when we're stretching our training run farther than ever before, the little voice in our head pops up to try to talk some sense into us; "that's enough for today" or "there's a lot of pain happening right now, time to quit."  

As I discussed in last week's post about the central governor theory, neuropsychologists are finding new ways to acknowledge and actually train the conscious brain to ignore or at least delay the stop orders coming from the subconscious, physiological control center.

In his recent TED talk, David Epstein, author of The Sports Gene, described the brain's circuit breaker role this way;


"Our brain acts as a limiter, preventing us from accessing all of our physical resources, because we might hurt ourselves, tearing tendons or ligaments. But the more we learn about how that limiter functions, the more we learn how we can push it back just a bit, in some cases by convincing the brain that the body won't be in mortal danger by pushing harder."

How exactly can we do that? For practical answers on all things running, my "go-to" source is Jason Fitzgerald, a 2:39 marathoner, USATF-certified coach and founder of Strength Running, a terrific resource of advice and tools helping over 150,000 runners per month.  
I asked Jason about his thoughts on the topic of brain training and for some "try this today" tips that we can all start using.