Increasing Cognitive Executive Functioning By Creating Low Stress Learning Environments

Lately there has been a lot of talk about how important it is to win, if you lose are you a loser and should we even be awarding things like participation trophies to kids?  I think all these topics are beneficial to have conversations about, and even more useful if people share their reasons behind their beliefs.

Below is an excerpt from my new book called “Chasing Dopamine & Other Game Changing Chemicals: The Neuroscience of Effective Athletic Coaching”, the book indirectly covers the questions of winning, losing and participation/appreciation awards/acknowledgment from a scientific viewpoint.

When it comes to increasing dopamine levels and coaching, it all starts with creating a safe and comfortable learning environment for your players.  Neurology studies have shown that comfort levels influence information transmission and storage ability in the brain.  When students are engaged and motivated with little stress in their environment, information flows freely and higher levels of cognition and learning are achieved; increasing cognitive input to executive function networks of the brain is more likely when stress is low and learning is connected to the student’s interests.  Under stressful conditions information is stopped from entering the brains cognitive storage areas, as the learning process is halted.  However, when the learning environment is positive, supportive, pleasurable and free of intimidation, the brain releases dopamine which stimulates the memory centers, increases motivation and promotes the release of acetylcholine, which promotes focus and attention.  Students thrive in environments where they are not overly worried about being judged or where they are bogged down with the fear of failure.   The last thing a coach wants to do is create an environment where player’s feel constant anxiety and stress, this will increase cortisol levels, lower motivation and reduce the player’s ability to learn.

The first step to increasing dopamine flow in your players is to reflect upon the learning environment you create for your team.  Does the current learning environment encourage dopamine flow?  Are the players practicing and playing in a positive, supportive, challenging, dynamic, high energy and exciting environment, where novelty is present?  Be careful if the players are losing focus, scared of making a mistake, bored and not supportive of each other.  These types of behaviors and environments diminish dopamine and decrease motivation, they take away any real chance of learning, retention and meaningful skill acquisition. The good news is that behaviors and learning environments can be changed at any time.  It is also important to remember that there are no studies indicating a negative effect when joy, passion, excitement, low stress levels and novelty are found in learning environments!

A simple way to increase dopamine production in your team is to increase the serotonin levels of the players, dopamine and serotonin are closely related.  Serotonin starts to flow when a person feels important and part of the group, in effect boosting dopamine.  Loneliness and depression often occur when serotonin is not present.  Destructive, attention-seeking and unhealthy behaviors can be the result of low serotonin levels.  Creating a healthy and supportive team environment that values all members of the group will increase every team member’s serotonin and dopamine levels.  Try adding some gratitude, appreciation and communication techniques into meetings, practices and games to increase serotonin levels.  People in general need to feel that they have value and are valued part of the group.  I make it a daily ritual to greet every player as they arrive, shake their hand (oxytocin release) and ask how they are doing.  Each day I try and speak to individual players and mention something positive about their contribution that day.  Another way to extend appreciation is to organize a few minutes during the week for players to share some positives about their teammates, peer appreciation and communication is very important in terms of the raising of dopamine and serotonin levels.  When the famous Soccer Coach Pep Guardiola arrived at Manchester City FC, he banned all Wi-Fi at the team’s training ground in an effort to encourage communication amongst the players.  Pep understood that groups and teams must get to know each other in order to build real strength.  The pharmaceutical company Pfizer realized the same lesson when they discovered that many of their product breakthroughs came from scientists who were eating together in the cafeteria.   Pfizer quickly switched their cafeteria menu to low carbohydrate and high protein foods, in order to avoid any sleepiness brought on from heavy carbohydrates, and they did away with time limits for lunch.  The scientists at Pfizer were encouraged to sit and talk for as long as they like.  Pfizer figured out that the stress free environment of the cafeteria worked wonders for creativity, motivation and job production.  This falls right in line with what we have learned about dopamine and serotonin in learning environments.

Another way to increase your player’s serotonin and dopamine levels is to reflect on the achievements of the team for the day, week or season.   Be sure to give credit to the entire team for being a part of the successes.  Always make the point that every player on the team is important and the success of the team depends on all players, no matter what their individual roles and contributions are.  Revisiting the groups successes will stimulate the brains reward centers, spiking dopamine and serotonin.  I also recommend instilling the value of respect in all players, every member of the team must show and display respect for each other and the team.  The modeling and teaching of respect must start from the coaching staff and work down through the entire organization.  Little things go a long way in the teaching of respect.  Coaches can start by saying good morning to every player, shaking the player’s hands, asking them how their day was, addressing players by name or even calling them “Gentlemen or Ladies”.  Those things may sound small but they convey appreciation and importance to every member of the group.  Appreciation and gratitude raise serotonin levels!  I recently read an excerpt from a well-known coach who said, “we don’t yell at our kids when we are teaching them to read and write, so why do we yell at them when we are teaching them to play soccer?”.  We now know that too much yelling will create a negative learning environment, which leads to a decrease in dopamine and serotonin, inhibiting learning and motivation.  The pattern should start to become apparent in terms of chasing dopamine, boosting motivation and creating healthy learning environments.  When I look back into my early playing and coaching days, I can see a lot of the good work my coaches had done with me.  Many of my mentor coaches would preach, “give a positive before making a correction or criticism”.   That simple piece of advice is a great way to ensure dopamine and serotonin are flowing.  Besides yelling at players, over-coaching is another pitfall to avoid, not only will it take away from your player’s ability to make their own decisions, it will decrease dopamine.  This might not sound like ground breaking stuff, but understanding the brains chemical reactions to different coaching methods will allow you to better evaluate your own coaching.  Try videoing your games and training sessions, watch yourself carefully and acknowledge not just your words but body language as well.  Are you increasing your team’s dopamine or decreasing it by your actions?  Video doesn’t lie, it is a very honest and truthful tool in self-evaluation.