All that you have ever experienced, will ever experience, all the exercises or personal bests you have ever pulled off have started and ended in your brain.
All movement, skill, thought, and everything that makes you, you is encompassed in this 3lb organ.
How does your brain know what to do at any given moment? How does your brain gather information? And of the information it gathers, how does it decide what to do with it? More importantly, does the way your brain gathers information and what it does with it have an effect on your training, performance or recovery?
You bet your arse it does!
Now, this isn’t a neurology lecture but before we get into how important the way your brain gathers information is and how to improve it, we need to, in a very basic way understand how the brain works.
Your brain uses sensory inputs to gather information. These sensors receive input and the peripheral nervous system (PNS) and the central nervous system (CNS) sends these signals to the brain which then basically decides the action and then creates motor output relevant to whatever was decided.
At a very basic level that’s it.
The brain has three ways to gather information or inputs:
Exteroception: monitoring the outside world Interoception: bodily awareness and feelings Proprioception: awareness of the body and limbs in space
These inputs are then integrated together to build and update the brain’s map of everything. Of you, the world around you and how you are moving through it. The brain updates previous experiences, senses, and predictive processes to make decisions that drive the body’s actions.
Now that we broadly understand how the brain does things, we need to figure out why it does them.
Well, the answer to that one is easy: survival.
Your brain’s goal is to keep you alive. Full stop. Not keep you alive ten years from now but right now, today.
How it does this is through prediction. Our brains are masters at pattern recognition. Every second of every day the 120 billion neurons in the brain are processing information based on previous experience to predict outcomes to actions, this is your brain using pattern recognition to decide actions.
There is a hierarchy to the inputs your brain uses to move through the world:
Visual Vestibular Proprioceptive
If these sensory inputs match (i.e. there is clear information from all three systems and there is good integration in the brain) your brain will allow you to function well and perform when it matters. Whether that’s CrossFit, powerlifting, or just picking something up of the floor.
When there is a mismatch is when we run into problems. If there is bad information informing the brain maps and pattern recognition abilities, then I am afraid it is going to try to limit the chances of death—usually by generating pain to draw attention or inhibiting movement.
In this article, I am going to focus on exercises to improve your visual system as 70-90% of all sensory input is visual.
The Role of Vision
There are two classifications of vision in humans:
Gaze stabilization: A foundational element of all other eye movements and allows us to see objects and to interpret the visual scene to create perception. Gaze shifting: This allows us to keep the focus on a moving target. Think that ball hurtling towards your face on the pitch.
There could be any number of things affecting these two patterns and hindering your visual system, which in turn could be dramatically holding your performance back without you even knowing it.
The key to training your visual system for performance is training the musculature of the eyes to function correctly. After all, poor muscular function will cause problems in gaze shifting and gaze stabilization.
We are going to cover one drill for stabilization and one for shifting. Reference my video for a demonstration of each drill.
I recommend you record yourself performing the drill and watch it back to see how you perform. That way, you can adjust accordingly.
Drill 1: Gaze Stabilization
Stand in a neutral stance. Hold a target (pen) at arm’s length directly in front of you. Stare at the target for 30 seconds. You must remain focused on the target because an inability to do gaze stabilization usually means very small, fast movements of the eyes off the target and then back onto it. When watching yourself back try to notice excessive facial tension, eyelid flutter, excessive blinking, or watering of the eyes as you attempt to keep focus on the target. Once you have performed this assessment in a neutral position, you will then perform the same test in each of the other four positions. Up, right, left and down. Take special note, as it is highly likely that you will find one or more positions in which you struggle with your gaze stabilization. It is vital that the target remains in focus at all times. If it goes out of focus reduce the distance away from neutral, you hold it. Do this drill three times through each position.
Drill 2: Gaze Shifting
Stand in a neutral stance holding a pen out in front of you in a neutral position.
Try to smoothly follow the pen as you move it from neutral into one of the eight positions below and then back to neutral:
Up Down Right Left Up and Right Up and Left Down and Right Down and Left
You should repeat this test three times in each of the eight positions. You will be looking for two things when you watch the drill back:
Excessive body sway. Badly coordinated movement of the eyes. This will usually be seen as a ratcheting or jumping type of motion that stops them from smoothly following the target.
Each of these can indicate poor visual-motor control.
Get Your Vision Straight
The aim of these drills is to get your eyes functioning properly so the information your brain gets is as clear as possible. That way your brain won’t be afraid to let you move fully in all of your available ranges of motion.
Remember, when the brain can predict, you can perform.
1. Gaymard, B., & Pierrot-Deseilligny, C. (1999). Neurology of saccades and smooth pursuit. Current Opinion in Neurology.
2. Hughes, A. E. (2018). Dissociation between perception and smooth pursuit eye movements in speed judgments of moving Gabor targets. Journal of Vision.
3. Ingster-Moati, I., Vaivre-Douret, L., Bui Quoc, E., Albuisson, E., Dufier, J. L., & Golse, B. (2009). Vertical and horizontal smooth pursuit eye movements in children: A neuro-developmental study. European Journal of Paediatric Neurology.
4. Krauzlis, R. J., Goffart, L., & Hafed, Z. M. (2017). Neuronal control of fixation and fixational eye movements. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences.