Building the Elite Athlete (Scientific American Presents 01) by Scientific American

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Mouth guards can absorb force and reduce it from the joint of the jaw. Training can help, too; athletes should work on their neck muscles, because a strong neck can carry the force of a blow away from the head into the torso. Leagues should also impose rules that emphasize head safety, and referees should enforce them. But most of all, doctors, coaches, trainers, parents and athletes themselves need to understand the symptoms of concussion so that they can guard against the dangers posed by repeat blows to the head.

Competition and crowds can increase an athlete’s anxiety, causing him or her to crumble under fans’ expectations. Basketballs that swish in during practice clank off the rim in the game; aces on the practice court turn into double faults at center court. But the same stimulation can accelerate the heart rate and adrenaline of another athlete, accentuating the drive to win. Some athletes are at ease under pressure: Reggie Jackson as “Mr. October,” Jerry West as “Mr. ” Others falter: Bill Buckner’s infamous through-the-legs error at first base that cost the Boston Red Sox the crucial Game 6 of the 1986 World Series; Scott Norwood’s muffed field goal in the closing seconds of the Buffalo Bills’s best opportunity for a Super Bowl ring thus far.

Few school-level coaches are experienced at administering neuropsychological tests, however, so Lovell and Collins have developed a computerized version of the exam, which resembles a computer game. They are testing the software in schools across the country and envision placing it in the offices of pediatricians and primary care physicians. “It’s like giving the brain a physical,” Collins says. ” People might dismiss a headache or altered vision as signs of stress or fatigue. “People joke, ‘I got my bell rung,’ but getting your bell rung means there’s been some neurological change in the brain,” Collins explains.

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