How to Build a Superhuman Athlete
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As any gymnast or pole vaulter knows, precisely calibrated motor movements are necessary to get to the elite level. But you need more than just exhaustive practice to clear a 6-meter vault or execute a complex uneven bars routine -- and a recent study says it's just as mental as it is physical.
A 2008 study in the Journal of Physiology reports that whenever a person perfects a task through repetition, that person's primary motor cortex initially expands, or there's an increase in motor cortical excitability devoted to the same muscles involved in the task. All of this results in a form of muscle memory.
Though the klutziest among us aren't likely to win gold medals any time soon, "you can become more coordinated," says Cutti, who suggests doing agility drills. Some research suggests that daily practice can even lead to permanent changes in the brain.
Even for sports that require mental nimbleness -- like tennis and Ping-Pong, which rely heavily on anticipation and perception of the opponent -- one can strengthen one's anticipatory reflex or mentally ingrain a routine just by watching the same performance over and over. That's one reason why physiologists like Cutti recommend that athletes film a practice or match and replay it.
This is not to say that all sports are created equal. "In the realm of gymnastics and figure skating, all of those more fluid, coordinated, specific events, I think that you might have a more genetic component and less of a training component," Cutti says. But though some everyday athletes may never reach Olympic caliber, that doesn't mean you can't reach your own peak performance.
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