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Apr. 21, 2010, 12:09 PM
The Brain: Why Athletes Are Geniuses (http://discovermagazine.com/2010/apr/16-the-brain-athletes-are-geniuses)

Interesting overview of current research into how experienced athletes (vc. non-athletes or novices) make conscious and unconscious decisions.

Of course, in eventing we have two athletes -- the rider and the horse -- so this discussion is also relevant in terms of how the horse learns and adjusts.

Good genes may account for some of the differences in ability, but even the most genetically well-endowed prodigy clearly needs practice—lots of it—to develop the brain of an athlete. As soon as someone starts to practice a new sport, his brain begins to change, and the changes continue for years. Scientists at the University of Regensburg in Germany documented the process by scanning people as they learned how to juggle. After a week, the jugglers were already developing extra gray matter in some brain areas. Their brains continued to change for months, the scientists found.

Even as practice changes the brain’s anatomy, it also helps different regions of the brain talk to one another. Some neurons strengthen their connections to other neurons and weaken their connections to still others. Early on, neurons in the front of the brain (the prefrontal cortex) are active. That region is vital for top-down control, which enables us to focus on a task and consider a range of responses. With practice, the prefrontal cortex grows quiet. Our predictions get faster and more accurate, so we don’t need so much careful oversight about how to respond.

silver pine
Apr. 21, 2010, 12:46 PM
Those of us in rehabilitation have been using these concepts for the last 10 years, specifically stroke and brian injury rehab. It was thought that after adulthood the brain could not change, now we know the brain is very plastic and can adapt to all sorts of challenges. The trick is to learn how to best harness the way the brain learns a new task so as to optimize performance.
In most sports there are constants, basketball size and size of the hoop don't change so repetitive practice is possible with nothing more than due diligence. In riding however the practice tool is constantly changing, ie the horse. If you are trying to learn how to perform a correct half halt for example, being able to focus on just your mechanics would be a lot easier to perform, since you now have to identify when do do the half halt and how to do it- the challenge is so much more difficult. Ever ask an upper level dressage rider how often they do a half halt? They have no idea their body just does them at the right time in the right place. When you ask them to count they are surprised by how many htey do without even realizing it. Motor learning!!

I often think if trainers and riders understood the process of motor learning and how the brain functions riding would be a lot less frustrating. Refining those movements so they become automatic is a skill when you are on a constantly changing learning environment (horse!!)

Great Article JER.