Athletic Training Principles in Healing

yay-12594734 Athletic training involves practice, coordination, and focus on the goal Do you want to take charge of your own health? More than just improved diet and exercise? How about to change brain circuits to relieve pain and speed healing? It can be done, but it takes focus. Mental rehearsal and mindfulness are the new wave in elite athletic training. And we can take lessons from Olympic athletes.

We often think of athletic training workouts as just for the body. But top athletes say it can be up to 90% mental (citation). What would happen if we adopted that attitude for healing?

This blog post is being rewritten and split into two different posts. It’s under construction. Please pardon the dust! If you have any comments while it’s in process, let me know! Thank you for your patience.

Goal-directed neuroplasticity

Neuroplasticity is our capacity to change our brains and nervous system. Dr. Norman Doidge in The Brain That Changes Itself …… Most reports of neuroplasticity indicate our brains do not change so much from passive activities. It is more what we do to change ourselves. Can you imagine how hard it is to walk again after spinal cord injury or stroke? Yet physical therapists use principles of neuroplasticity to train patients. They move the limbs, and the sensation of movement stimulates brain circuits to regenerate. However, it is a lot of work.

….We need to have goals that are specific to us. And we need the training to fit our abilities. Moreover, it needs to be fun, something we love, so we stay engaged.

Feed forward Principles

Feed forward[1] in psychology or cognitive science is a way of learning new behaviors. As one example, if you plan a trip in great detail, it makes packing go smoothly. And you don’t forget your passport!

Gymnasts have used feed forward principles to train for Olympic gold medals. Athletes have used them to make perfect shots in basketball. Therapists use them to teach an autistic child to prevent tantrums. Even to retrain movement after stroke or spinal cord injury.[2]

Imagined movement has also prevented muscle atrophy in people who had casts on their arms. It improved recovery times compared to others with similar casts. That is because the brain is projecting the movement to the muscles. This activates both the muscles and nerves.

All of these examples require learning. Learning involves several brain structures, working at the same time. All these structures are as necessary for goal-directed movements in a fruit fly or praying mantis as they are for a human.[3]

Feed forward, Feedback: Athletic training and visualization

Feed forward concepts have been adapted for cybernetics and organizational management. How can they apply to healing the body-mind and nervous system? We can take lessons from athletic performance training, and use the body’s natural sensory feedback mechanisms to create change.


When we just think about doing something, our body responds. First we might get a picture of what we intend. Then, various brain centers signal to start the movement. Next, others brain centers receive sensory input (feedback) from skin, muscles, joints, nerves and other sense receptors. They compare the accuracy of the movement to our intention. Finally, they fine-tune or correct the movement.

But we don’t even have to move for all this to happen! Very similar processes occur when we mentally rehearse a movement. This was used to great advantage by Olympic athletes, and visualization with focus and concentration has been adapted by sports science to perfect athletic performance. [4]

yay-13250254Mind-Body Healing from Pain–Rewiring Our Nervous System

It is not obvious whether we can take examples of athletic training and apply them to overcome pain. Pain is an experience that the brain creates to protect you from threat of danger. The threat can be real or imagined. It still creates the same experience of pain. When it turns on the alarm, it may forget to turn it off when the threat is over.

What chronic pain patients and top athletes have in common is the fierce determination to succeed. And the need to practice. This is true whether we are reframing how our brain interprets a threat, or athletic training that requires persistent mental rehearsal.

Lorimer Moseley and David Butler have strategies to get your brain to reframe the pain. They knows that playfulness can enhance learning This then changes your experience of pain. (You can find more articles at their blog site, Body in Mind)

yay-5879004Neuroplasticity with Integration Massage

Neuroplasticity comes about through training and practice.

My main bodywork technique is Ortho-Bionomy®. It works with your body to regain emotional and physical balance. It is also deeply relaxing. From that relaxed state, you can project alternatives to the “fight or flight” mode that feeds forward into your life. It may take a lot of practice, however! Repetition is the key to body-mind healing.

Have you had experiences with mind-body practices that helped with healing? Please feel free to leave comments here, or email me privately.

[2] The Brain that Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science, by Norman Doidge, M.D. 2007. A New York Times Bestseller, with examples of neuroplasticity, and research.
[3] “Decision-making centers in the brains of insects and mammals share too many similarities to have evolved independently, according to comparative studies led by UA neuroscientist Nick Strausfeld. The findings may help better understand the mechanisms underlying diseases such as Parkinson’s.”
[4] Athletic training coaches offer many options for books and guidance on mental imagery. Here are some: practical tips to perfect your sports performance– The Art of Mental Training: A Guide to Performance;  inspirational quotes and anecdotes, applied equally to sports and business life, written by a sports psychologist–Mind Gym: An Athlete’s Guide to Inner Excellence; easy to read —Visualization, Focus and Concentration to Improve Sports Performance.

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