Breaking Down the Neuroscience of Athletes

Admiration for Simone Biles is high throughout Xtreme Gymnastics. Her next-level precision and grace compels us to ask how much of her talent is inherent, and how much of it results from hard work and practice. According to Thomas Jessell, the codirector of the Mortimer B. Zuckerman Mind Brain Behavior Institute at Columbia University, there’s no clear answer to this question.

Jessell, a neuroscientist and movement expert, cites the problem as, “An issue where no one bit of the brain or the spinal cord is going to give you the definitive answer…It could be that the wiring that happened in early development was particularly precise. So you have the opportunity to refine and perform motor tasks more effectively.”

The brain’s motor system is quite complex. We know, for instance that whenever our Xtreme Gymnastics athletes decide to move, they manipulate hundreds of muscles. Neurons in their minds devise plans. The plans transform into commands. The commands pass through their brains and into their spinal cords before arriving at the muscles. This happens while navigating space and balance.

Of course, training plays a significant role in athletic success. Research shows that top-tier gymnasts have stronger nerve connections between their spinal cords and cortexes than non-gymnasts. There are also stronger connections related to motor and sensory function. Attention is sharper as well. The conclusion is that with ample practice, the brain can rearrange its wiring. It’s a matter of plasticity.

There’s a lot more to learn about what happens in the brains of people like Biles.