You can’t force a determined and focused athletic performance when the passion is gone. It is in our genes. Our emotional energy is a limited resource. If we fail to use it wisely we deplete the brain reservoir of feel good neuro-chemicals needed for focused attention and become mentally distracted and disinterested. This is often wrongly interpreted as being physically tired, but it’s about being in a perpetual state of emotional burnout. It is not just our athletes, but much of society is running itself into mental fatigue with too much busyness.
There is a brain science behind how well our elite athlete’s play and it is becoming increasingly difficult for young athletes to sustain focused attention in a world driven by technology. For hundreds of thousands of years human beings have been wired to be in the world with a physically active body and, a clear and calm mind. In the 21st century, however, our children are growing up in an increasingly sedentary world with a mentally frenetic headspace.
To play well athletes need to fire their dopamine system. The feel good neurochemical that motivates, focuses attention and gives them the determination to persist, but here lies the problem. In the past it has been enough to trigger dopamine through sport and movement, but hand help technology has hijacked this reward pathway and it can now be triggered by multiple superfluous finger movements across a screen. The addictive nature of over engagement in technology is due to it constant triggering of little squirts of feel good dopamine. It is the same reason some people use recreational drugs, to achieve the high that comes from an over stimulated dopamine system.
The problem is when individuals trigger dopamine through mental busyness they deplete their neural stores. Like a car revving its engine, it burns through the fuel and inevitably empties the tank. Dopamine depletion can lead to a disengaged, agitated and irritable demeanor. At its worst an individual with an empty tank can experience burn-out and depression.
We are at risk of technology killing our sports gene where not only athletes struggle to sustain the attention needed for prolonged endurance events, but spectators can’t watch a game without their iPhone. A break in play results in a return to hand held technology to alleviate boredom and feed a craving for mental busyness. We can continue to modify our games making them shorter and faster, to help sustain attention and interest, but perhaps we need to look at the root of the problem, not the symptom and use our technology wisely.
Gayelene Clews is a Performance Psychologist and author of “Wired to Play: The Metacognitive Athlete”. She has worked with many of the very best sporting teams in the world including Olympic and World Champions. Clews applies science to success in her “Wired for Success” business workshops for emotionally intelligent organisations and runs professional development workshops for schools. Contact Gayelene via firstname.lastname@example.org. To purchase her book www.wiredtoplay.com.