Getting Your Students Into the Flow

By Susan Black

Elite athletes, whether sinking a perfect hoop shot on the court or executing a graceful double axle on the ice, make it look easy. Or so it seems.

How do expert athletes execute faultless moves time after time? Practice counts, of course. So does physique and conditioning. But investigations into athletes’ prowess, and into their brains, using neurological imaging and scans, show there’s more to the story.

Picture a tennis ball that’s rocketing toward you. In an instant you need to calculate where the ball will land and where to place your racket, says Tim Gallwey, who has studied athletes’ split-second reactions. You need to gauge the ball’s initial velocity, its progressive decrease in speed, and the force of its bounce. In a fraction of a second, your mind sends messages to your muscles and you move into a position from which you can lob the ball into the back court or perhaps drive it crosscourt with a powerful spin.

Neurobiologist Joshua Sanes, director of Harvard’s Center for Brain Science, says your brain circuitry -- millions of neurons that are wired together and pass electrical signals -- allows you to act and react in milliseconds.

James Houk, physiology researcher at Northwestern University, says the cerebellum coordinates timing and is active when you aim at a target. Neurons in the basal ganglia send signals to the motor cortex. With practice, you “export coordination ability” to the motor cortex so movements happen automatically, he says.

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