Mental March Madness: How To Train Your Brain

By Victoria Vernail

What is the difference between a graduate student and Michael Jordan? MJ likely has superior physical features – he’s bigger, stronger, and faster. But what you are not be able to see is that his brain, and the brains of many competitive athletes, exhibit unique features. Changes in the brain such as brain volume or activity can be observed using imaging techniques including functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and electroencephalography (EEG). Motor, cognitive, and executive processes are important for improving performance at a task. A specific area of the brain important in athletic ability, called the primary motor cortex, is responsible for signaling voluntary movement in response to a given sensory stimulus. A 2014 study examined brain activity using EEG in elite German table tennis players and found that in response to videos of table tennis, elite athletes had greater activation of the motor cortex compared to amateurs.1 A similar trend is also seen in karate athletes, who have shown increased and faster activation of the primary motor cortex than non-athlete controls.2 So when MJ jumps up to meet a basketball souring across the court, the primary motor cortex is activated.

The primary motor cortex is organized to a specific body plan called the motor homunculus. The motor homunculus, or “little man”, contains organized sections that each correspond to a specific body part, acting as a map of the body in the brain (Figure 1). The motor homunculus is largely devoted to upper limb movements, including the hands and arms, which would be activated when MJ shoots a basketball.

Figure 1. The motor homunculus is the representation of body parts that are controlled by specific regions of the brain. It acts as a map of the body at the primary motor cortex. Made with

Visualization restructures motor areas of the brain and improves performance

The activity in the brain’s primary motor cortex can be increased with training by increasing connections and cortical volume.3 In other words, practice makes perfect. Training for a skill can be conducted mentally, where an individual imagines performing a certain movement instead of physically doing that movement. Imagining a movement evokes activation in the primary motor cortex, stimulating the brain in the same way that the actual movement does.4 Athletes take advantage of the mind’s ability to activate parts of the body through a technique called visualization. Michael Jordan imagining shooting a game winner over Utah Jazz in Game 6 of the 1998 NBA finals could prime his body and mind to successfully complete the task. In an interview, MJ discussed how his coach on the Chicago Bulls taught MJ and his teammates to visualize the game of basketball to enhance their performance on the court.

Another region of the brain involved in motor training and performance is the cerebellum.5 The cerebellum maintains balance, posture, and is involved in motor correction. Connections between the cerebellum and the primary motor cortex are altered when a motor error occurs, which is useful to fine tune motor output to relevant muscles.6 If MJ air balls a basket, his cerebellum processes that information, sending a stronger signal to the primary motor cortex and the motor response is an improved shot the next time MJ has the basketball. Damage to the cerebellum leads to decreased activity in the primary motor cortex, as well as decreased timing and precision of motor tasks.7

Mindfulness enhances athletic performance

In addition to motor skills, cognitive processes including attention are important for improving performance.8 The prefrontal cortex is involved in attention and can be enhanced by cognitive training, such as mindfulness. Mindfulness, a meditation tool characterized by intense awareness of physical and mental states, increases connectivity in the prefrontal cortex.9  Studies have shown that college athletes were able to improve their efficiency on an attention network test after participating in 5 weeks of mindfulness training.10 Additionally, increased attention allows experts to pick up on earlier cues than amateurs, such as the way a cricket ball is bowled, to anticipate hitting the ball better.11 Mindfulness is becoming a more popular tool in sports but also throughout society with many beneficial effects outside of increased attention (Figure 2). Increased attention is important for athletic performance but also enhance learning and all aspects of daily life.

Figure 2. Mindfulness techniques improve memory and attention but have several other benefits that reciprocally enhance attention. Made with Adapted from the True Athlete Project.

Athletes have increased executive function

Experts are also known to be calm under extreme pressure. Stressful situations can be adaptive or maladaptive depending on a several factors and can affect decision making or performance.12 Enhanced performance in stressful situations may be explained by increased activation in areas of the brain in charge of executive function – things like planning, initiation, and goal-directed behavior. The prefrontal and anterior cingulate cortex are responsible for decision making and attention.13 These brain regions are negatively affected by worry or external factors such as distractors, which may cause athletes to choke under pressure.14 Therefore, minimizing distractors or over-arousal could help performance in important tasks. A study examining high division and low division soccer players found that high division players performed better on executive functioning tasks perhaps due to cognitive skills transfer between their sport and other tasks.15 Additionally, acute exercise has been found to increase executive function in healthy participants, which could explain enhanced performance on executive function tasks by athletes.16 Thus, training executive function skills aids in enhancing decision making and focus towards improved task performance.

Non-athletes can work to polish their skills

Elite athletes are not the only ones who are able to train their brains with these tools. Practice, visualization, attention, and mindfulness can be used outside of sports settings to enhance school or job performance. Our brains are constantly changing and can be molded to become more efficient at the tasks done most frequently. Successful performance is influenced by internal and external factors that can be trained to control. Therefore, you can essentially do anything you put your mind to. The next time you have an upcoming presentation, try these few steps towards success:

1) practice frequently

2) visualize yourself in front of the room

3) take a walk before

4) minimize distractions during the presentation

You can also use these tools to pick up a new hobby or enhance a skill during graduate school!


  • Practice measurably changes brain activity
  • Stress influences performance, but there are tools to improve cognition and attention
  • Anyone can use performance tools to improve task efficiency


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