"Great athletes are one step ahead"

“Great athletes are one step ahead”

Sports fan, the neuroscientist delved into the brains of champions. On the eve of the Olympic Games, he reveals their secret: an exceptional ability to focus on specific goals. We can imitate them!

In thirty days, the greatest champions on the planet will parade in Paris. How is their brain different from ours?

Several factors are intertwined. The first is of course the training, the number of hours spent performing a movement, the right environment, the coach. But as soon as the movement is mastered, the champion moves on: he clarifies his intention. In training, the great tennis player Rafael Nadal doesn’t say to himself: “Today I’m going to do backhands.” » No, he focuses his attention on a specific part of the ball to give it a certain effect, a particular bounce. He positions himself, adjusts his gaze to the right spot, locks on a mark and strikes a certain way.

Isn’t he just trying harder? Isn’t he more tenacious?

No, it’s really cognitive. It programs itself to act in a particular way with each ball. As his intention becomes extremely clear to his brain, a sort of locking takes place. Then the rest follows, he lets himself be carried away. It is a voluntary programming, which later determines extraordinary performances.

Why do some athletes manage to direct their minds in this way and not others?

This is the great mystery. One day, a young athlete will be interested in his attention skills and say to himself: “Hey, I’m going to concentrate like this. » No one advised him, he triggers this inner process of research all on his own.

And what about innate talent in all this?

The question is not completely clarified. People will have more efficient, stronger, faster muscles, that’s for sure. But when it comes to technical skills, the amount of talent is difficult to quantify. If two players train five thousand hours each, and one has better results, we can say that he is more talented. But if the other, instead of focusing on what he had to do, thought about his girlfriend or his shopping list half the time, the comparison is distorted.

You don’t believe in genius?

I believe above all in the way of placing one’s attention intelligently. When one grows up spending years concentrating on specific things, one ends up perceiving the invisible. Only after that does the impression of ease arise.

What is going on in the brains of these champions?

In great athletes, certain specific areas of the brain would be richer. For example the parietal lobe, this part involved in the perception of space and attention. It is she who integrates information from different sensory modalities (vision, touch, hearing). As the champion placed his attention intelligently throughout his sporting life, his brain developed it. This gives him a head start, he sees the next image, he recognizes situations based on a clue. Perceiving can be learned.

Like us in front of a film whose outcome we suspect?

Exactly. Champions develop expert perceptions that give them a particular reading. They guess what happens next, exclude certain possibilities. When we watch a Hollywood action movie, we know that the hero is going to kill the villain, we know the ending in advance.

Footballers are often said to be a bit “limited”. Do intellectual abilities have an impact on performance?

We need to stop taking these shortcuts. Neurons don’t know whether they’re taking a corner, talking, or tinkering. Intelligence is revealed by domain. A great footballer spots the action that’s taking place and produces appropriate gestures to send the ball into the goal. He’s skillful in his specialty, less so in rhetoric or mechanics because he doesn’t evolve in them. Put a philosopher on a field, you’ll see…

Can you train your brain?

Yes, we can especially learn to use it better. For every action, a clear intention is necessary. If someone speaks to me and I want to understand, I must have the intention to do so, it allows me to filter what is useful to me in order to initiate the right processes afterwards. You can make your brain more efficient from one second to the next just by concentrating.

Is the brain the body’s true coach?

Yes, who would he be otherwise? Even more than the coach, he is the puppeteer.

Does he know the limits of the organism?

He does not know them in advance but quickly integrates them. In our brain, we find the motor cortex. A kind of small moon located in the upper part which includes structures called subcortical, allowing to activate the muscles. It is this system which is capable, when it launches an action, of immediately predicting its effect: “If I do that, I will twist my ankle…” It anticipates pain, shame, helplessness, it puts a kind of handbrake. The older we get, the more the brain masters this capacity of prediction. Children do not have it yet. When you see little hotheads overtaking you like rockets on a ski slope, it is normal, their brain does not predict anything. The latter builds its models through experience. The age of reason occurs at 7 years old.

If the brain is the body’s coach, can it teach us to be happy?

Ah, let’s move on to something else! (Smile) Yes, it can. In the 1970s, a Hungarian psychologist, Mihaly Ciíkszentmihalyi, researched tens of thousands of people. He asked them about the moments of happiness they experienced in their lives. His conclusion: people are happy when they are doing something they are good at. And this feeling comes from concentration, from attention. From this he derived the notion of “flow”: the feeling of being completely connected to what you are doing. It produces a feeling of great ease, and therefore happiness.

Does concentration promote spiritual search?

Yes, prayer is the first example. When we pray, we address God, we do not think of our neighbor.

Some people are more spiritual than others. Does the brain have anything to do with faith?

Yes, in a way. In Marseille, an epileptology team placed electrodes in patients’ brains in order to consider surgery. In clinical routine, they sent mild electrical stimulations to a region called the insula, the inner part. In some, the experience triggered a feeling of mystical ecstasy.

So spirituality is linked to a particular type of brain activity?

The brain is involved in one way or another. It has a reward circuit, stimulated by our immediate environment (sugar, telephone, etc.). This system encourages immediate gratification, the short-term horizon. There are individuals in whom, without knowing why, it works less and provides fewer rewards. Which encourages us to seek another kind of satisfaction, deeper, higher, such as spiritual research.

Let’s get back to basics: what are your tips for becoming a champion?

The number one piece of advice, which we find among the greatest, is this desire to be better the next day than the day before. You have to target something and say to yourself: “I want to progress in this, I will find a way. » You have to have a researcher’s mentality, and this spirit depends a lot on attention.

Are you going to watch the Olympics?

Yes of course ! I’m a sports fan. But not in Paris, I want to avoid chaos.

The biography of Jean-Philippe Lachaux

  • 1970. Born in Antony (Hauts-de-Seine).
  • 1990. Entrance to the Polytechnic School.
  • 1997. Publishes his thesis “Neural synchronization and cognitive activity in humans: a possible role for attention”.
  • 2000. Entrance to the CNRS.
  • 2011. Publish The attentive brain. Control, mastery and letting go (Ed. Odile Jacob), in which he teaches the reader to “pay attention to their attention”.
  • 2020. Foundation of the Atole program with childhood professionals, which aims to discover and learn attention in the school environment.

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