BOOK REVIEW: Head in the Game by Brandon Sneed

Head in the Game: The Mental Engineering of the World's Greatest AthletesHead in the Game: The Mental Engineering of the World’s Greatest Athletes by Brandon Sneed
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon page

 

There are many factors that influence whether an athlete can reach an elite level. Physical factors such as VO2 max (maximum oxygen consumption) and musculature have long been at the fore in the minds of coaches and trainers, but they’ve never told the full story. There are athletes who have the muscles, lungs, and general physiology to dominate their sports who fall apart under pressure. One also sees the occasional athlete who is consistently good even though he seems puny by comparison to his peers. It used to be that mental performance was considered an endowed X-factor–you either had it or you didn’t. Coaches didn’t know how to coach for issues of the mind and often exacerbated problems with old school attitudes and approaches.

We’ve now entered a new era in which a bevy of techniques and technologies are being exploited to strengthen the mind and improve psychological deficiencies, just as gyms have always been used to build the body and combat physical deficiencies. These range from techniques of meditation and visualization that have been known to yogis and Buddhists for centuries to advanced technologies that have only become available in recent decades and which are constantly improving and being made obsolete. Sneed examines the gamut of these approaches as they are applied to improving performance in sports: from the meditative or therapeutic to the electronic or pharmacological. One no longer need give up on athletes who are great at their best, but who get the yips at the worst possible times. The performance of mediocre athletes can be improved and that of the best can be made more consistent.

Sneed has a unique qualification to write this book. He counts himself among the athletes who couldn’t reach his potential because of inconsistency rooted in psychological challenges. His willingness to be forthright about his own problems makes the book more engaging. His own stories are thrown into the mix with those of athletes from football, basketball, soccer, baseball, adventure sports, and mixed martial arts (MMA.)

The book’s 19 chapters are divided among four parts. The first part lays the groundwork, helping the reader understand the rudiments of how the brain works, doesn’t work, or works too hard for a competitor’s own good. A central theme is that the ability to analyze and train through the lens of neuroscience has removed some of the stigma that has always been attached to psychological issues in sports (not to mention the days when they were written off as weakness.) Much of the six chapters of Part I deal with assessment of the athlete’s baseline mental performance. The last chapter (Ch. 6) covers a range of topics that have been around a long time as they’ve been reevaluated through modern scientific research. These include religion, faith, superstition, meditation, visualization, and the immortal question of whether sex is good or bad for athletic performance.

The second part consists of five chapters taking on one fundamental truth: mind and body are not two disparate and independent entities. This section starts at the most logical point: breath. Practitioners of yoga (i.e. pranayama) and chi gong have known for centuries that breath can be used to influence one’s emotional state and level of mental clarity. Sneed evaluates the technology that is being used to help athletes master the same age-old lessons. Having laid the groundwork through breath, the section advances into biofeedback technology. There are two chapters in the book that deal with pharmacological approaches. One is in this section and it deals with legal (at least in some locales) substances such as caffeine, alcohol, nicotine, nootropics (alleged mind enhancing drugs), and marijuana. (The other is in the final part and it deals with hallucinogens.) There are also a couple of chapters on technologies used to produce or enhance desired mental states.

For most readers, the third part will be seen as the heart of the book. Having considered how to evaluate an athlete’s mental performance (Part I) and how to influence mind states by way of the body (Part II), this part explores the range of technologies that are used to exercise the mind in a manner analogous to working out the body. These technologies focus on a range of areas including improving the nervous system’s ability to take in information, process that information, and respond appropriately. Much of this part focuses on video games; albeit video games using state of the art virtual reality and which are customized to improvement of athletic performance. Some of the games are used to train general cognitive performance (e.g. Ch. 13) but others are specifically tailored to the game in question (i.e. Ch. 14.) Just as simulators are used in aviation, part of the advantage of these games is the ability to put players in progressively more challenging conditions.

The last part of the book was the most interesting to me, personally. [It’s also the part of the book that will be the most relevant and readable a few years down the road because it’s not as modern technology-centric as most of the book—especially Part III–is.] It’s entitled “The Spirit” and it explores X-factors to performance, but sans the assumption that these are endowments, but rather under the assumption they are trainable. The part has an important introduction that presents the research about how “soft” factors like gratitude play into outlook and performance. Then there are the Part’s three chapters. The first describes an experiment involving taking elite athletes into physically arduous conditions of the kind normally experienced by military special operations forces in survival training. The second tells the story of MMA fighter Kyle Kingsbury’s use of hallucinogenic substances (most intriguingly, ayahuasca, a powerful drug long used by Peruvian shamans.) Finally, the last chapter deals with sensory deprivation—a technology some will associate with the movie “Altered States” but which many athletes swear by.

The book has an extensive section on notations and sources organized by chapter. There are no graphics.

I enjoyed this book and found it to be informative. There are a number of books that explore the techniques and technologies of optimal mental performance, but this one develops a niche by focusing on the realm of sports and some of the technologies that are only available with the kind of deep-pockets seen in professional sports. The book is heavily weighted toward the technology part of the equation, which is both good and bad. If you’re reading it now (2017), it’s great because you’re getting an up-to-date discussion of the subject from the perspective of entities that are awash in money for tech. The downside is that this book won’t age well, at least not as well as it would if there was more emphasis on approaches that aren’t based on cutting-edge technology.

I’d recommend this book if you are interested in optimal human performance, and if you have an interest in sports, all the better.

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5 Books to Improve Mind-Body Performance

It’s the time of year when people think about how to be better, fitter, and smarter; so I thought I’d drop a list of books that I found helpful and thought-provoking.

 

If you’re interested in learning more about any of these books, the hyperlinks take you to my review in GoodReads, and from GoodReads you can get to Amazon page.

 

1.) THE RISE OF SUPERMAN by Steven Kotler: How do extreme athletes achieve Flow when one false move will kill them?

RiseOfSuperman

 

2.) FASTER, HIGHER, STRONGER by Mark McClusky: How do elite athletes squeeze the most out of the potential of the human body?

FasterHigherStronger

 

3.) BECOMING BATMAN by E. Paul Zehr: What would it take, physically and mentally, to become the Caped Crusader?

Becomingbatman

 

4.) FLOW by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi: How does one achieve that state of relaxed and confident concentration in which we perform our best called Flow?

flow

 

5.) Extreme Fear by Jeff Wise: How does one overcome anxiety and fear to perform one’s best?

ExtremeFear

BOOK REVIEW: Faster, Higher, Stronger by Mark McClusky

Faster, Higher, Stronger: How Sports Science Is Creating a New Generation of Superathletes—and What We Can Learn from ThemFaster, Higher, Stronger: How Sports Science Is Creating a New Generation of Superathletes—and What We Can Learn from Them by Mark McClusky

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Amazon page

McClusky’s book tells us how advances in sports science and technology are producing a new class of elite athlete. More usefully, it discusses which practices of high-level athletes can reasonably be emulated by amateurs. One may think that what’s good for the goose is good for the gander. In this case, not so much. If shaving a hundredth of a second off your time isn’t going to affect your life’s course, there are many activities of elite athletes that simply aren’t worth the cost (in whatever terms.) For example, the loss of friendships due to rampant flatulence resulting from consuming large quantities of baking soda isn’t worth it if you just want a little bit stronger Sunday cycling ride. (Baking soda [sodium bicarbonate] counteracts blood and muscle acidification during exercise and makes it possible to keep moving strongly when fatigued would normally degrade performance. Incidentally, this practice has been shown to be effective only for events that last between one and seven minutes.) On the other hand, some of the lessons of sports science are relatively low-cost and high benefit, and might be just what one is looking for to improve one’s performance. (e.g. Replacing a pre-workout stretching routine with one of rolling out the muscles.)

Faster, Higher, Stronger consists of twelve chapters, each addressing a different aspect of the application of science and technology to sport, including: training methods, genetics, nutrition, recruitment, practice, performance enhancing substances (legal and illegal), elevation training, and the limits of performance.

One question that has always been of great interest is how much of a top athlete comes from his or her genes? In other words, can anyone can do it–given a willingness to work like a maniac of course. As with many other questions about heredity, it was once thought that there would be a precise answer to this question in the wake of the decoding of the human genome. However, the success of the human genome project showed only that the situation was vastly more complex than we’d imagined. It turns out that having certain genes isn’t the end of the story because there are many factors that influence which genes are expressed. Attempts have been made to put numbers to the influence of genetics. For example, one scientist is quoted as claiming that 50% of oxygen processing capability (i.e. VO2 max) is heritable. This translates to the fact that, while the average Joe has a reasonable chance of engaging in athletics at some level, only a 0.1 to 0.3 % can summit the pinnacle of elite level athletics.

In many ways, science has encouraged coaches, trainers, and recruiters to think outside the box—and to look beyond the traditionally engrained approaches. One fascinating story was that of how the British national rowing team held tryouts based only on height, with experience with the sport being not required. They ended up with a champion rower who’d first entered a boat only four years before. This is part of the evidence that controverts the once popular 10,000 hour rule that was popularized by Malcolm Gladwell–though Anders Ericsson is more properly considered the father of the idea. It turns out that 10,000 hours of practice aren’t required for most activities if one goes about it right.

McClusky spends a considerable amount of space on the questions of what athletes should and shouldn’t consume. In emulating elite athletes many amateurs are working at cross purposes. This is readily seen with the issue of sports drinks. If you’re guzzling down a Gatorade or snacking on Cliff Bars after your run, you may only be ensuring that you continue to gain weight despite working out. On the other hand, you may decide that chocolate milk or beet juice are good choices for you.

I’d recommend this book for those interested in the heights of human performance.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Rise of Superman by Steven Kotler

The Rise of Superman: Decoding the Science of Ultimate Human PerformanceThe Rise of Superman: Decoding the Science of Ultimate Human Performance by Steven Kotler

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon page

This is NOT a book about the comic book hero. It’s a book about a mental state called “the flow” and how adventure and extreme athletes have used it to make tremendous strides in their sports. The characteristics of the flow include extreme focus, time dilation / time distortion, a vanishing sense of self, extremely high performance, fearlessness, and a falling away of everything non-essential to the task at hand.

Kotler is by no means the first author to write about the flow. The term was inaugurated by a book entitled Flow first published in 1990 by a University of Chicago Psychology professor named Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. Csikszentmihalyi coined the term in the process of conducting a study on happiness. He found that happy people tended to engage in activities in which they could immerse themselves and find the zone. Contrary to the early part of Kotler’s book–in which it sounds like adventure athletes cornered the market on flow–Csikszentmihalyi says that said activity could be work or hobby and that the flow is to be found in poetry writing, yoga, martial arts, copy writing, or potentially any activity in which the skill level and challenge are both high.

(To be fair, Kotler does get around to recognizing that extreme athletes neither invented nor exclusively exploit the flow. However, his—well-taken—point is that such athletes are unusually good at finding, and dropping deep into, the flow in part because risk-taking behavior is an important trigger. And for free climbers [rock climbers without ropes], mega-ramp skateboarders, and bodysuit skydivers sometimes there are only two possible states of existence—the flow and being scraped off a rock.) It should be noted that some of the elements of flow sound a lot like the states that have been described by various mystical religious traditions for centuries, e.g. the dissolution of a feeling of separation between self and the rest of the universe. Warning: religious readers may find it disconcerting to read that there are scientific explanations for states that were once attributed to communion with god or the like.

While I’ve given Kotler’s book high rating, I haven’t yet given one reason to read it—and I do recommend people read it. First, while Csikszentmihalyi is the “father” of flow research, his methods were decidedly low tech–i.e. surveys and interviews—but Kotler reports on more recent studies involving neuroanatomy, neuroelectricity, and neurochemistry. Second, while Kotler delves into the science of the flow, he does so in a manner that is approachable to non-scientists. Finally, all of the narrative accounts of extreme athletes interspersed with the more technical commentary make for a very readable book, even if one is not particularly knowledgeable of—or interested in—such sports. I gave this book a high rating both for its food-for-thought value, and because of its high readability.

I will admit that I was not so enamored of the book when I first began it, and other readers may find the same irritation. For one thing, Kotler’s adoration of extreme athletes comes off sounding like diminishment of mainstream athletes and others involved in “flowy” activities. A prime example of this is seen in Chapter 1. Kotler gives us an endearing description of how gymnast Kerri Strug won the gold in the 1996 Olympics by sticking a landing on a shattered ankle. However, he then comes off a bit douchey when he suggests that Strug’s achievement pales in comparison to Danny Way’s skateboard jumps at the Great Wall of China.

For another thing, in his zealousness to prove that extreme sports practitioners are full-awesome while mainstream athletes are “meh,” Kotler makes some comparisons that seem apples and oranges to a neophyte such as me. If they are fair comparisons, he certainly doesn’t explain why they should be considered so. The best example of this is when he states that Olympic divers took decades to achieve increases in rotation that extreme skiers and skateboarders surpassed in much less time. This seems unreasonable for two reasons. First, divers have a very standard distance in which to achieve their acrobatics. In other words, they don’t get to build a “mega-platform” that’s 50% taller like Danny Way creates “mega-ramps” that were bigger than ever before. Of course, if you can increase the distance between yourself and the ground you can increase your spins, rotations, or whatever much more quickly (yes, your danger goes up vastly, I’m not diminishing that.) Second, the divers gained zero advantage from technological improvements, but the same cannot be said for skiers and skateboarders. In other words, if you go from skis made of oak to ones made of carbon nanotubes (that are 50 times stronger and 1/100th of the weight) of course you’re going to make gains faster.

Perhaps, I’m overstating Kotler’s disdain for mainstream athletics, but that’s what happens when one uses a national hero as a set up to show how much more awesome a relatively unknown skateboarder is (among skateboarders Way is extremely well-known but he’s not a household name as the Olympian was–at least for a short time in the late 90’s.) I suspect that Kotler was just trying to convince a general audience that the athletes he’s speaking about aren’t pot-smoking knuckleheads who are as likely to be seen on America’s Funniest Home Videos crushing their nads on a handrail as setting a new world record. These men and women are serious people engaged in serious activities, and they give it their all. They do deserve more respect for that than they are probably given by broad sectors of the populace. Perhaps, the importance of what these folks are achieving does need to be conveyed because the demographic that reads books and the one that follows extreme sports probably has wide wings of non-overlapping area. (I’m not saying skateboarders are illiterate or bookworms don’t skate–just that the Venn diagram has substantial areas of mutual exclusivity.)

As I indicated above, in each chapter we get both some insight into the nature of the flow and its triggers and stories of adventure / extreme athletes that serve as examples of what’s being discussed. In chapter 2 we learn what the flow looks like in terms of brain waves (i.e. high theta/low alpha, or between meditation and a relaxed / resting state of wakefulness.) In chapter 3, we learn about the neuroanatomy of the flow in terms of what areas of the brain it lights up, and what areas shut down–which is more important to flow states. In chapter 4, we learn about the neurochemistry of the flow and that a cocktail of dopamine, norepinephrine, endorphins, anandamide, and serotonin makes up the chemistry of flow, but, critically, not so much with the adrenaline. The subsequent chapters deal with triggers of the flow, and what conditions best set up achievement of this state of mind.

Chapter 9 stands out as an important, but quite different, portion of the book. It deals with the downside (or dark side) of the flow. This has a lot to do with the fact that the aforementioned internal substances (and the flow state in general) are quite addictive. While it’s unfair to say, and unlikely, that the extreme athletes Kotler writes about (i.e. the ones at the top of their games) are drug addicts as some might assume of skate boarders, snow boarders, and the like, it may not be unreasonable to say that they have a kind of monkey on their backs—albeit a perfectly legal one rooted in their own neurochemistry.

As I’ve said, I recommend this book for anyone who is interested in this state of mind. One needn’t be interested in extreme sports to get a lot out of the book.

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