My new book “Chasing Dopamine & Other Game Changing Chemicals” The Neuroscience of Effective Athletic Coaching will be out next week. Below is an excerpt from the book. It is a must read for any coach that wants to understand more about effective athletic coaching and improving team management techniques.
Dopamine is the chemical that motivates us to achieve goals, fulfills desires and provides us with pleasure when we achieve them. Non-starters, procrastinators or just having a general lack of motivation are all connected with low dopamine levels. As humans we are programmed to release dopamine when we are rewarded, anticipate a reward, gamble, achieve goals, fulfill a need, take part in exciting activities or simply experience novelty when learning. Dopamine operates within the human brain in a complex bundle of nerve cells called neurons, these neurons are constantly communicating with each other to shape how we think, feel and act. Neurons are connected together by a tiny space called a synapse, the synapse is the place where messages between neurons are relayed. When we perceive something good is happening, the sending neuron will release dopamine into the synapse where it connects and reacts with the receptors of the receiving neuron, giving us the feeling of pleasure. The receiving neuron will pass the message onto the next neuron as the chain reaction continues. After the neurons message is sent, the dopamine is recycled by transporters as the process is repeated, giving the feeling of reward and pleasure. Studies have proven that when there is an increase in dopamine levels within the brain, we become chemically primed and ready to learn and retain knowledge. Dopamine has been described as the “save button” in the learning process, when dopamine is present we retain knowledge and when it is absent we don’t. However, dopamine has more of a purpose then just being a catalyst for learning and retaining information, it also serves as a major motivator of human behavior, it is what makes a person ultra-focused, attentive, living in the present moment and absorbing everything in a very awake state. Humans originally produced dopamine as a reminder for us to eat, which can be considered the largest motivator of all, if we didn’t eat we would die. Before modern society, if humans waited for real hunger to kick in, it might be fatal, after all humans had to hunt for food and this required large amounts energy and time. There were no grocery stores or fast food restaurants in Paleolithic times! Dopamine served as a constant reminder for humans to eat and hunt, even if they were not in need of food at that exact moment. Biologically this is why when we see food, we feel the urge to eat. It is very important to understand that dopamine is released for perceived pleasure and not just the act of pleasure, this dates back to our survival roots. All this dopamine stuff sounds beneficial and positive, but dopamine comes at a price, it can be highly addictive if not balanced, especially for people with low dopamine levels. Alcoholism, sex addictions, gambling and even technology addictions stem from unhealthy urges for dopamine. In today’s society, many kids are addicted to their video games and cell phones; ADD & ADHD are up 66% in the last decade. ADD and ADHD are frontal lobe issues and there is a 66% increase these cases in just the last 10 years. How is something like this possible? Simple, the cases are misdiagnosed, the real issue is, they are dopamine addictions and not frontal lope issues. The symptoms of dopamine addiction are similar to ADD & ADHD, shortness of attention and an inability to stay focused because we are consumed with our next hit of dopamine and instant gratification. Take the I-Pad or cell phone away from a child and the withdrawal symptoms come in the form of tantrums! However, when dopamine is balanced it works in the opposite way, it improves our ability to focus, increases our attention capacities and raises our ability to solve problems.
The reason dopamine’s influence is so strong is because the human brain has regions that function as powerful reward centers, these reward centers are specifically activated by dopamine, the more interested and motivated we are in something, the more dopamine is produced and the more likely we are to keep repeating the behaviors. These reward centers essentially serve to reinforce things which bring us favorable outcomes, meaning we get really good at doing the things we associate with favorable or positive outcomes, in turn producing more and more dopamine. This is why many of the world’s top experts in their particular fields received constant praise growing up as children in their area of expertise. Take the example of a young soccer player, if the player had received positive encouragement and praise every time he or she touched a soccer ball growing up, the player would associate kicking the ball with positive feelings (rewards), this effect would be accompanied by a spike in dopamine. The repeating cycle of praise and dopamine release overtime would serve to motivate the child to keep playing soccer. As the child continued to play soccer, their skill level will inevitably increase, self-esteem will be elevated and a real sense of self-worth and personal accomplishment would develop, all these factors further encourage the reward cycle to continue. The picture should be clear at this point, doing any activity for which a person receives constant and consistent praise and “reward” from a young age, increases the person’s motivation and belief that they are very competent in that area, their motivation comes from the reward center which is directly activated by dopamine! Hence, dopamine is the chemical reason behind our motivation, learning and successes. In order to get the most out of your players, you must make sure that your coaching methods increase dopamine flow.