In this excerpt from his book Neuroathletics for Riders, Olympic coach Marc Nölke explains the common causes of the brain’s failure to produce the output (performance) we want in the saddle.
The brain’s most important job is to keep us alive. There’s nothing more important to the brain than ensuring our survival! Isn’t that nice? But this also means survival matters more to the brain than jumping your horse over a log or riding elegantly in the dressage arena. These neuronal games aren’t systemically relevant.
We have all kinds of survival reflexes, but no reflex to help us ride a piaffe. A piaffe is of absolutely no importance to the brain. It might be important to your ego—the frontal lobes, the area of conscious thought—but as far as the rest of the brain is concerned, it’s just messing around.
Reflexes are reserved for actions that can keep us alive.
Now we’re getting to the point: The brain lets us perform any movement, without any problems and with maximum strength, if it thinks that movement is safe. And for the brain, whether an activity is assessed as “safe” depends on the quality of the input, its interpretation of the input, and the predictions it models based on that input and that interpretation. The brain is constantly making predictions about the immediate future. To guarantee safety and survival, it isn’t enough just to work purely “descriptively”—that is, to work by describing the current situation. Makes sense, doesn’t it? If your brain only warned you about danger when you were already in the middle of receiving an impact to your head after falling off your horse, it would be too late to do anything about it. Now we come to the next important point: The better the signals your brain gets from all its receptors, the easier it will find processing and prediction.
Safe or Unsafe?
The brain takes this giant dataset and compares it with information saved from previous experiences. Then it decides whether you are SAFE or UNSAFE. If your brain assesses the coming situation to be SAFE, it will relax your muscles, reduce your respiratory rate, keep your heart rate steady, and allow your joints to move through their full range of motion.
However, if it assesses the coming situation to be UNSAFE, it will increase muscular tension, respiratory rate, and pulse rate, and you might also experience pain or shortness of breath. Many people experience back pain. What’s more, your mental state is instantly influenced by your brain, so you feel anxious. And if your brain keeps detecting UNSAFE situations, you might even become depressed, which serves to avoid threats and keep you safe.
All this means we need to find stimuli that increase our perception of our safety. I’d like to use an example to explain what that means in practical terms: imagine you tear a ligament in your ankle and rest your ankle for a long time. Your brain hardly receives any signals from the motion sensors in your ankle while you’re resting it. The neurons that transfer information from your ankle to your brain are “asleep” and may be asleep for weeks.
When neurons stop firing, their connections to each other become weaker. Prior to your injury, the “map” of your ankle in your brain was precise but now, after weeks without any activity, it isn’t precise anymore. That means your brain no longer knows exactly what position your foot is in; as a result, it can’t accurately predict how the foot can bear weight. Is this a good starting point for your brain to ensure your “survival”? Nope! Your brain thinks: “I have no idea what the foot’s doing, so I can’t guarantee anything.” In this context, riding your horse at canter over a log is immediately categorized as UNSAFE, and full power to your body and riding position will not be made available. But that obviously applies to all movements, not just jumping a log.
And if you nevertheless decide to jump the log, despite your brain’s hesitation, your stubborn frontal lobe will go on an ego trip. It can work, but only because people are incredibly good at compensating. You can expect your brain to reach for its ultimate emergency brake: pain. But you shouldn’t resent it, because it’s just trying to protect you. Your brain produces pain because it believes there are too many threatening signals and too few safe signals (G. Lorimer Moseley 2017).
If we want to improve our performance or our movements, or reduce pain, we need to increase the brain’s perception of safety and reduce its perception of danger. First, we need to find and release the threats or “brakes.” How do we find these blocking obstacles? Which input do we need to change? There’s no standard solution or training plan for this; it’s a question that must be answered on a case-by-case basis. But I’ll be happy to help you figure out how to narrow it down. First, let’s look for obvious potential for “brakes.”
COMMON BRAKE BOOSTERS
FUEL SUPPLY PROBLEMS—BLOOD SUGAR
Blood sugar levels like a rollercoaster aren’t something brains find cool. Blood sugar levels that are too high or too low make movements uneven, unsteady, and even dangerous (Serra et al. 2009; Khan, Barlow, and Weinstock 2011). When the tank is empty, the brain quickly starts to panic.
FUEL SUPPLY PROBLEMS—OXYGEN
Along with glucose, oxygen is the most important fuel for our brain. Injuries like bruised or broken ribs, illnesses such as asthma or COPD, or even bad habits caused by stress can severely impair the supply of oxygen to the brain. If this happens, neuroplastic change—long-term learning—becomes very difficult. This affects a good two-thirds of my clients, including Olympic athletes.
DEFICIENCY PROBLEMS—EYE MOVEMENTS AND VISUAL PROCESSING
It’s important for the brain that our two eyes give it a clear picture of the environment we are in. Slow or inaccurate eye movements slow down perception of our environment. Interpreting visual data requires more calories—takes more effort—when there are too many differences between the images from the right and left eye. If our eyes and visual processing aren’t in good shape, the brain steps on the brake.
You’d do that, too, if your windshield wipers stopped working in the rain, wouldn’t you? Have you experienced one or more concussions? Are you sensitive to bright light or noise? Does reading make you tired quickly? Do you have to wear glasses or contact lenses? Are you unable to stand packed concert halls, supermarkets, or anywhere busy with crowds of people? Then the cause of your problems could be here.
OLD INJURIES AND “BLURRY MAPS”
Firstly, breaks, torn ligaments, and the like leave behind damaged receptors at the site of injury. Secondly, the reduced flow of information during the period of injury can alter the “maps” in our brain and make them “blurry.” Even when the injury has long since healed, it can take a long time for the neuronal representation of the once-injured tissue to be restored in the brain.
If joints don’t move through their entire range of movement over a longer period, the mechanoreceptors typically found in the joints suffer an activation deficit that also has a negative effect on the quality of the associated “maps.” Would you take your chances in an unknown and dangerous area with a blurry or inaccurate map?
We’ll talk about the balance system in our inner ears in more detail later. But for now, what matters is that the brain clearly doesn’t like not knowing exactly where gravitational force is coming from and how quickly we’re moving. Anybody who’s ever been unseated by a bucking horse will know what I’m talking about.
People are herd animals. Problems at work and with friends, family, partners, or children are a source of emotional and psychological stress. Stress causes changes to hormone excretions, blood sugar levels, and breathing patterns—which brings us back to our first two brake boosters.
LACK OF SLEEP
Too little sleep is bad—very bad. Not getting enough sleep makes everything worse: mood, libido, vision, balance, sense of movement, reactions, attention, and much more. Important repair and waste disposal measures take place in the brain as we sleep. Sleep is king. So go on, off to bed. Close your eyes. Sleep!
When your brain puts on the brakes when you’re riding, you should find and eliminate the factors boosting the brakes. You can find the right stimuli to counter your personal set of brakes with neuroathletics.