Science has shown that our brains are influenced and altered by each new experience. So how mentally tough players become is largely determined by social interactions with parents and coaches. In this way when any interpersonal interaction causes neurons in our brain to fire at the same time, they connect. As that experience is repeated the neural connection strengthens like exercise strengthens muscles. But without repetition the neurons and their connection dies. And through different experiences neurons change their pattern of connection.
And when children turn 10 they are nearing an important sensitive period of development when the brain becomes incredibly open to forming new connections. Aside from infancy pre-adolescence is the time when the brain is most open to change via experience. About this time the brain begins a new period of incredible plasticity and openness to remodeling. This is the period when parents and coach interactions can most easily re-set neural connections that have been strengthened during early childhood.
This is especially so in a part of the brain that is underdeveloped at this stage called the pre-frontal cortex (this sits just behind our eyes). Brain imaging studies have revealed that the pre-frontal cortex, which continues to develop well into our 20’s, is the brain region that is most open to construction during this sensitive period. This region is vital for many functions including problem solving and decision making, responding to emotions, and our sense of self. So coach and parent interactions that nurture these skills and perspectives adaptively are particularly important during this time.
This pre-adolescent period may represent what has been called by some prominent brain experts as your ‘last best chance’ to impact the development of children’s mental toughness. Because although it is possible to teach old dogs new tricks with increasing effort, never again will the brain be so available to change, because it is plotting to begin taking a very different course.
During the teenage years the process of pruning, where the brain discards the neural connections that aren’t being used, goes into overdrive. In fact, teenagers can lose neural connections at the rate of 30,000 per second. So from the age of about 12 when the brain has the most connections of any time during life, the brain begins shedding connections at an amazing rate.
This leaves plenty of room for those connections already formed to thrive even further. Until this point the brain has left it’s options of connection relatively open but at this time it makes a bet on which connections are most important to keep and strengthen. The dating game is over and it’s time for commitment.
So, along with the pruning that limits alternative connections, the brain increases rates of strengthening and speeding up well-used connections through a process called myelination. Through myelination neural connections can become up to 3000 times faster in their communication. The combination of increased rates of pruning and myelination during this time results in a leaner, meaner brain that is stronger, faster, more efficient, and more difficult to remodel.
Dirt Roads to Highways…
You might think of this period as being like building a few superfast highways with few exit options to replace many dirt roads with plenty of alternative routes. What results is the experience of skills and perspectives becoming more automatic and unconscious. So, from the perspective of physical skills, during this time players experience technical aspects of their tennis development becoming set more rapidly as the neural pathways responsible for motor skills increase myelination and pruning. And from a psychological perspective, aspects of how children see themselves in relation to competing, and how they respond to competition challenges also automate further.
This is supported by brain imaging evidence that shows that through repetition, both motor skills and psychological perspectives such as self-views tend to migrate from their respective dominant outer brain regions to a deeper part of the brain that is associated with more automatic, unconscious responses, called the basal ganglia.
Parent and Coach Importance….
It’s important to recognize the opportunity parents and coaches have during your interactions with pre-adolescents in influencing developmental pathways that have been built to that point. Because when the brain ramps up its selectivity in which pathways will be kept during the teen years it does so based on which connections are best used, not which connections are best for children’s preferred skill and mental toughness development.
Mentally Tough Tennis is an organization, developed by Anthony Ross, committed to advancing the knowledge of coaches, players, and parents regarding the development of mental toughness in tennis. They offers cutting edge free information for coaches, players, and parents.
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