Neuroathletic Training – Part 1
Florian Heck • 31. May 2021 • 7 Min.
“It’s all in your head”, it is a common phrase that is used, but not without reason. Every movement begins in our brain and has a major impact on our athletic performance. It is worth taking a deeper look into the processes of the nervous system. This approach is followed by the so-called neurocentric or neuro athletics training. The founder, Dr. Eric Cobb, addresses this type of training with his Z-Health method. This area of training became popular in Germany thanks to Lars Lienhard, who accompanied the German national soccer team to their win in the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. To this day, he has published a couple of books on this specific subject. Nowadays, more and more top athletes have integrated this method into their training, including KickAss Sports founder and professional triathlete Laura Philipp. We also integrate this approach into our education offers, as we are strong believers that the right training begins in your head and that technical training in particular should be based on it.
Since the topic is very extensive, we will first go into some basics and the visual system in the first part. The second part then deals with the equilibrium and proprioceptive system. Besides explanations, we also offer you some exercises.
How the brain works
To put it simply, our brain does three things:
- The recording of information from the environment, one’s own movement and internal processes (breathing, organ activity) via the sensory organs = Sensory input
- Analysis and processing in the brain = Interpretation
- Creation of a program for the next action and transmission to the corresponding area of the body = (motor) Output
The output could be, for example, an arm pull while swimming, a running step, but also a sensation such as pain. In practice, we focus almost exclusively on the output in this process and try to improve it through appropriate training measures. Often we come to the point where our performance stagnates despite high motivation, diligence and frequent practice. We question our training program and overlook that it is steps 1 & 2 (input & interpretation) of the process that should be given more attention. The output largely depends on how good the quality of the input and the interpretation is.
„The brain is not primarily geared towards performance“
The main task of the brain is to ensure our survival. All other things are initially subordinate to this task. This also includes athletic performance. Our brain absorbs innumerable sensory information every millisecond. To do this, it scans our environment, our movement and our body and evaluates this information to determine whether that what we are doing is a “danger” or not. If a situation is recognized as not clearly predictable, the brain pulls the handbrake and optimal performance is not possible. Qualitatively inadequate information is classified as unpredictable and threatening, and “protective measures” are taken, such as the restriction of strength and mobility, resulting in muscular tension or pain. How much pressure is applied to the pedal when cycling, for example, can therefore possibly be due to the visual information recorded. In order to achieve maximum performance, the input and the interpretation must be improved so that the receptors of the movement control deliver the highest possible information to the corresponding brain areas, which then process this further and send it to the muscles.
This scenario can be visually compared with the functionality of a GPS computer. The computer receives signals from several GPS transmitters. The better this information is, the more precisely the computer can determine the current location, distance and speed. If one or more GPS transmitters provide insufficient or no information, the accuracy of the data also suffers.
If the brain constantly receives insufficient information, permanent physical, emotional and mental limitations in performance can occur. In order to avoid this and to improve performance in the long term, work should be done on the input and the interpretation.
Evaluation of the training exercises
The brain and the nervous system react immediately to the given stimuli. Therefore, it is possible to check very quickly what effect the respective exercise has. In order to find out the effectiveness of the exercises, an assessment should be carried out before and after each exercise and these should be compared with one another. You can proceed according to the following scheme: Pre-assessment – exercise – post-assessment.
Depending on how the post- to pre-assessment turned out, a conclusion can be drawn about the effectiveness of the exercise. This can be divided as follows:
- High performance: Performance-optimizing exercises that have a positive effect on the central nervous system. Post assessment results are better. These exercises can be used to achieve a rapid increase in performance (e.g. immediately before a competition).
- Neutral / slightly positive: Exercises that have (almost) no influence on the nervous system. Both assessments are the same.
- Processing: Exercises that the brain classifies as unpredictable. The brain reacts with protective measures and the post assessment is worse. These exercises should be trained over the long term.
The motion control systems
Three systems are responsible for the sensory input of our brain: The visual system (vision), the vestibular system (balance) and the proprioceptive system (self-perception of movement). With regard to motion control, there is a clear hierarchy:
- Visual system
- Equilibrium system
- Proprioceptive System
We want to go into more detail about each individual system and give appropriate training recommendations.
The visual system
It is not without reason that the visual occupies the highest place in the hierarchy of motion-controlling systems. With around one million nerve fibers, it provides the most and most important information, with the largest sensory input with over 10 million data per second. It goes far beyond the function of “sharp vision”, which can be tested by an optician. The visual system provides information about our environment, puts us in relation to the environment and is significantly involved in controlling movement. It also includes the motor skills of the eyes, the movement of the eyes. Even a small loss of information or disruptions can lead to an unsafe situation and reduce performance.
More visual skills
- Peripheral vision = Identify new or moving objects in the periphery
- Foveal vision = Recognition of detailed information
- Binocular vision = Binocular vision; both foveal fields of view are aimed at a target
- Saccades = Jumping from one object to another
- Pursuits = Eye following movements
- Vergence = Bringing the gaze together and apart
- Accommodation = Local and television
- Very sharp = Recognize objects clearly and sharply
The visual system of an athlete should master the following skills:
- Visual Clarity
- Deliver visual clarity can control eye movements well
- Precise determination of the depth relation to objects
- Ensure good peripheral perception
In view of the complexity of the system and the large amount of information, eye training can be very strenuous and tiring, which is why it should be started slowly and with simple exercises. A distinction can be made between so-called top-down and bottom-up athletes. The former do not have any injuries to the eyes or head and tolerate a visual stimulus very well. Bottom-up athletes are very sensitive to visual training and can even react with dizziness or nausea. Often they have had (slight) concussions in the past or are very sensitive to light and noise.
1. Isometric training of eye muscles with star graph
- Neutral stand, look from the center to the end points of the rays and stay on this point for 5-10 seconds. Directions of movement: right-left / up-down / diagonals
- Head shouldn’t move. Does a position cause difficulties? Does the head move with it? This exercise should be trained more intensely
2. Saccade training with a letter cards
- Neutral stance, gaze jumps from near letter card to far letter card; go through each letter from left to right
- Change gaze only when letter is clearly recognized
- Hold the vision stick or the tip of a ballpoint pen in front of your body at eye level and fix it with your gaze
- Point the vision stick or ballpoint pen in all directions of the star diagram and follow it with your eyes
- Which direction was more strenuous? Where did the head move with? These directions should be trained more intensely.
4. Augenliegestütz/ pencil push-ups
- Hold a neutral stand, vision stick or ballpoint pen 40-50 cm in front of you at nose level
- Slowly move the stick / ballpoint pen to your nose, follow with both eyes until the image is blurred, then lead it back again. Repeat 2-5x
- Error images:
- Stick is pulled away from the center towards one eye
- The head is rotated slightly to the side
- In one eye, movement inward is delayed or cannot be held in for long
- Correction of the error images: Training with only one eye, which cannot be crossed inward as well
Lienhard, L. (2019). Training beginnt im Gehirn. riva: München.
Schmid-Fetzer, U. / Lienhard, L. (2018). Neuroathletiktraining – Grundlagen und Praxis des neurozentrierten Trainings. Pflaum Verlag: München.
Schmid-Fetzer, U. / Lienhard, L. (2020). Neuronale Heilung. riva: München.