16 Coaching Guidelines for Increasing Dopamine in Athletes
- Novelty: Keep practices new and exciting. Here is a quote from the New Zealand Rugby team that talks about creating novelty in training and in-effect stimulating dopamine release, “By throwing all sorts of problem-solving situations at them (the All Black’s players) and randomizing situations, we found we were getting better long-term learning. It lets peak performance become automatic.” Of course it is fine to repeat important drills and exercises but be sure to add variations while changing the conditions and rules. Deliberate practice tells us to focus 80% of our time on the most important 20% of practice activities, but this doesn’t mean things need to get repetitive and boring.
- Challenge & Reward: Practices should not be too easy or too hard in terms of experiencing success. Athletes will be motivated if success is attainable, yet still challenging and engaging. Once the team becomes proficient at a particular training exercise, change the exercise so players have to find a new solution or make an adaption in order to succeed. The idea is to make the players work to find success, forcing them to solve problems as they apply their skills, as they succeed it will encourage further success, this serves as a great motivator, activating the reward centers of the brain, in turn increasing dopamine levels! Practices should include many opportunities to succeed, because small layered accomplishments that fit into the larger training will spike dopamine! In the book, “The Winner Effect”, Robertson talks about how boxers schedule easy fights to give themselves confidence before taking on a much tougher opponent, the easier opponents serve to neurologically prepare the boxer for success in the bigger fight. What that says to me is that players must experience numerous successes in training every day, because success neurologically prepares them for continued future success and rewards + dopamine release + motivation.
- Positive Learning Environment: Practices and games should be viewed as limited stress environments where players feel comfortable, safe, not intimidated and carry no fear of failure. Sports is a competitive area but the way we approach the competition is what will determine how the five major chemicals in our bodies are activated. The coach is the one who is ultimately responsible for creating the environment and teaching the players how to respond in the environment. Responding is much different than reacting, responding involves understanding how to best manage your actions during highly competitive situations, while reacting is an untrained often unpredictable response. Stress in my opinion is often self-imposed, in sports it come from parents, coaches, teammates, fans and many other places. As the coach, it is up to you to create a fun, uplifting, exciting, caring and positive environment for your team, so the dopamine, serotonin and oxytocin levels rise along with your player’s motivation! Keep the cortisol out of your learning environment.
- Gratitude & Appreciation: Establish a team culture where everyone is respected and demonstrates their appreciation for each other on a daily basis. By making every member of the group feel included and important, dopamine and oxytocin will flow.
- Reinforcement: Reinforce the behaviors that create a positive team culture. Catch the players doing something right and be sure to highlight it for everyone to see! Ever see a football players helmet covered with stickers? Those stickers are usually earned by doing something for the team that was deemed valuable. Nothing releases dopamine like reinforcement, especially reinforcement among peers.
- Break Time: Give the players a brief break after working hard in practice. Even a small break will give the amygdala a chance to cool down and rebuild neurotransmitters. The break also serves to relieve any stress the players might have been under; it also allows their brains to process the information from the training they just completed. It may come as a surprise, but just the process of thinking and problem solving can expand a massive amount of energy. A good example is to look at world champion chess players, these players have shown increased heart rates, spikes in testosterone, surges in adrenaline and endorphin release equal to those of contact sport athletes during and right after matches. There is a reason the brain uses so much of the bodies energy supply, don’t forget the importance of setting and break time.
- Active Learner: Encourage players to ask questions, self-correct, peer-correct and peer-teach. Players who are encouraged to be active learners feel more connected to the group (oxytocin) and become more empowered in regards to their development. When a person feels that they control their development, it is exciting and excitement leads to increases in dopamine.
- Sense of Humor: The game is just that, a game. As much as we want to be champions and win trophies, sport is just a game, played by players who want to have fun and test themselves. In life sometimes we tend to lose perspective, thinking that a game defines who we are and what we are worth as people, this simply is not true. Maintaining a healthy sense of humor can help remind us that we are worth so much more than winning or losing. Humor used at the right times in the right way can stimulate dopamine release, it also serves as a great stress reliever if used correctly.
- Support: Encourage players to support each other at all times. Enthusiasm and a positive spirit are contagious. Training and games should contain energy, fun and excitement!
- Effort, Attitude and Non-Verbal Communication: All players are expected to train and play with a high work ethic while maintaining an excellent attitude. It is seen as disrespectful to the team if a full effort is not given or if the attitude of a player is visibly poor. Effort and attitude are both things which players have complete control over, these two factors are non-negotiable. I once heard a very respected coach say,” Praise effort and attitude, not skill”. I thought that was a very interesting view point, because how many times does a player who demonstrates great skill get praised, while their effort and attitude are not considered. It is important to remember that a person’s attitude can be seen on their face and conveyed by through their body language. We know that facial expressions, gestures, body posture, proxemics (spacing or distance away), eye gaze and haptics (touching) all make-up non-verbal communication and all of them transmit emotion and attitude. Did you know smiling is contagious? Well it turns out not just smiling is contagious; but all facial expressions that convey emotion are contagious. If you look frustrated, upset, serious, intense, relaxed or just like you’re having fun, your players will feel and experience those same emotions with you. That can be a good thing or a bad thing depending on the situation. The most important thing is that you are aware of it and can control the emotions and non-verbal communication you are emitting. Here are just a few examples of how body language can negatively or positively affect the people you are speaking to. Did you know that when you are speaking to people with your palms facing up it makes them feel at ease? They automatically do not feel bullied or like you are talking down to them, it helps create a safe cortisol free learning environment. Speaking with your palms facing upwards is inherently seen as non-threatening, it makes people feel safe and at ease with you, releasing oxytocin. This simple palms-up body position can serve to increase your player’s attention and therefore cognition. Speaking with your palms facing down is more like giving a directive and has the opposite effect of having your palms upward. Speaking with your palms down has its place and time for sure, but if you do it too much the players will start to tune you out and any chance of learning will be lost. It is fine to speak with palms down when the information is on a serious note or things need to be done quickly and organized immediately, but do not get in the habit of using the technique too much. The next hand position while speaking is finger pointing. Pointing is different than just having your palms facing down when speaking; palms down is a directive but pointing is considered an order, with no room for debate. People do not like to take orders on a regular basis, it stunts learning and releases cortisol. Use the pointing method only when the need arises and immediate action must to be taken, or you want to drive home a point once in a great while. When you sit with your fingertips together, palms facing each other and hands out in front of your body, it signals to people you are an expert, confident, knowledgeable in your field. The different ways you can position your hands while speaking are just a few simple ways hand movements can play a role in non-verbal communication, there are virtually unlimited ways that a coach can use body language to communicate and lead the team. Ever hear of the “Superman Body Position”? Stand up tall, chin up, feet a little wider than your shoulders and hands positioned on your hips with arms bent. The “Superman Position” signals you are strong, confident and capable. In fact, anytime you make your body upright and big with your head up, it conveys leadership and confidence, try never to curl up and make yourself small, it conveys a lack of confidence and possible intimidation. The idea is to be aware of your body language and use the appropriate body language for each situation. I am sure everyone has seen coaches lose control on the sidelines. Imagine for second that the volume on your TV was turned off; I bet you would still be able to see when a coach has lost his emotional control by looking at his body language. Don’t be that coach. Make it a goal to be aware of all communication and the impact it has on your team. If you want your team to be calm under pressure but you are jumping up and down waving your hands all over the place, don’t expect them to be calm. If you want to create a more positive team culture, start wearing your positive beliefs on your face, if want your team to be calm, then convey that in your posture, face and movements. If you want to take it a step further, start training your players to read your opponents non-verbal and verbal communication. Being aware of the opponent’s mental state could turn into a huge advantage.
- Nothing Personal: Nothing the coach says to players in regards to criticism or the enforcing of rules is ever personal. This must be explained to each player very clearly. The coach’s responsibility is to help each player and guide them in the process of learning the game and being a positive contributing part of the group. The coach must have a genuine interest and care about all the players as people. Interaction from coach to player is never to be demeaning in any way. Instruction during training will be the main focus of communication combined with positive re-enforcement and some humor to keep things fun my opinion. However, it is the coach’s job to maintain proper discipline, respect, focus and work ethic within the team. The coach must have a structure in place that facilitates these qualities and eliminates unwanted behaviors.
- Team First: Each individual in the group is important and must be treated that way. There is never any one person that is more important than anyone else in the group or the group as a whole. This type of mutual respect and feeling of unity among the tribe will increase serotonin, dopamine and oxytocin levels while decreasing cortisol.
- Emotional Control Together: Without emotional control the environment can become stressful and unpredictable. A positive learning environment involves players who can control their emotions and feelings and help each other control them as well.
- Discovery Questions: Coaches should become skilled at answering questions with questions. This will lead players on the path of discovery and creativity while placing the responsibility of learning ultimately on the players themselves. Discovery questions will activate dopamine and encourage cognitive growth.
- Structure: Have well defined rules that make training organized with accountability for the players. Punctuality, dress code, proper language and respectful behavior are examples of rules that help create a healthy training environment. Remember even being associated with a group that is considered to have value and is respected will increase serotonin.
- Learning Accountability: Players must understand that ultimately they are responsible for their own learning and improvement. They are the only ones that can put in the required effort to get better at the sport.
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