• Keelyn van Breda // PhD Exercise Physiology

The Mental Edge: Practice Makes Perfect


“I hated every minute of training but I said don’t quit. Suffer now and live the rest of your life a champion” – Muhammad Ali


Most athletes are aware that exercise training results in functional changes to skeletal and cardiovascular systems, however few realise the impact exercise training has on the brain. The talent code[1], by David Coyle explains how talent is not born but grown. He substantiates this by explaining how repetition increases neural communication from the brain to the muscle fibres allowing for the quick and accurate execution of movements. This neural communication is increased through a process known as myelination, where myelin, a fatty substance, is wrapped around nerve fibres known as axons[2]. One can equate myelination to the insulation of electrical cables, which prevent signal loss. Mice studies have shown that myelination is important for the process of motor skill learning. Mice that were unable to myelinate new nerve fibres failed to acquire the skill of wheel running[3].

So, how many hours of training are needed in order increase myelination? Many theories exist on the quantity needed, including the 10 000 hours’ rule described in the book Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell[4]. The 10000 hours rule has received many critics due to its oversimplification of what goes into developing talent or expertise. The argument is that practice cannot be the only determinant of talent and involves interactions between individual genes, the task itself, and the environment.

An alternative to 10 000 hours is to increase the quality of practice, where quality dominates quantity. David Coyle describes a paradoxical mechanism known as “deep practice” where struggling, suffering and making errors increases skill. If a particular task challenges us it is more beneficial to make errors and learn than just repeating easier tasks. How can we apply this “deep practice” practically?

I have outlined 5 simple steps one can implement to make use of “deep practice”.

  1. Consistency: Do not miss training sessions unless sick or injured, repetition not performance is important

  2. Goals: Have a focussed goal for each session. Some examples are: focussing on breathing, increasing strength and developing speed. Goals will keep you focused and motivated

  3. Observe: Learn from the champions within your sport, observe technique and try implement them in your training

  4. Suffer: Learn to acknowledge the power of suffering, the tough workouts are key to developing mental strength.

  5. Enjoy: Appreciate your health and your ability to train. Enjoyment will condition the brain to associate training as rewarding

In the next few issues I will discuss the neurophysiology of exercise; how this research has increased exercise performance and wellness and what possible implications in the future might be.

  1. Coyle, D. (2009). The talent code. New York: Random House Inc.

  2. Morell P, Q. R. (1999). The myelin sheath. In Basic Neurochemistry: Molecular, Cellular and Medical Aspects.

  3. McKenzie, I. A., Ohayon, D., Li, H., Paes de Faria, J., Emery, B., Tohyama, K., & Richardson, W. D. (2014). Motor skill learning requires active central myelination. Science, 346(6207), 318–322.

  4. Gladwell, M. (2008). Outliers: The story of success. New York: Little Brown and Co.

#SportPsychology #DeepPractice

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