Good day, my friends. Yes, you read it correctly. All Canadian athletes do abuse this very popular performance enhancer. Even more so all Canadians, in general, use it on a daily basis. I know what you are thinking right now, but believe me, it is a pure truth.
When I moved to Canada I was shocked how widely popular it was in here by comparison to Russia. All right, enough of this intrigue. Let me tell you more about this enhancer. I will start with its name. The name is “Smile”. Right, a simple smile is the greatest performance enhancer, and Canadians know it! They smile all the time, they do not need a particular reason, they just do it 24/7.
You can see why a poor Russian guy like me was taken by surprise when everyone in Canada kept smiling at him. To say least it was suspicious to me and entertaining at the same time. Four years after I am immune to this phenomena. I mean I learned how to smile back and more in general. I should admit I like it. Moreover smiling helps me a lot improve the motor skills badly needed in Gymnastics.
You might be wondering how it helps in sports. This is the topic of this article. As usual, I will make it brief and informative without tiring you with too much science. Though I will cover this topic in some detail which will require your attention. Let’s start.
We will begin with how the Central Nervous System (CNS) receives, conducts and processes the information.
Receiving the information.
There are five sensory inputs we use to communicate with the outer world: vision, audition, taste, smell, touch. What are those inputs? Let’s figuratively say that they are simple naked nerves sticking out of the body and susceptible to different kinds of irritation from outside: light beams, sound waves, molecules we can smell or taste and physical matter which we can touch or be touched with.
Whenever you open your eyes the light particles, photons, physically hit your retina nerves, interacting with the chemicals inside them. This chemical reaction spreads along the optic nerve going all the way up to the Brain. A reaction like this is called a nerve impulse or signal. After the optic nerve impulse has reached the Visual Cortex, placed in the Occipital lobe of the Brain, in the back of your head, it interacts with that cortex’s chemicals, triggering other reactions which spread in millions of other directions within the Brain. This process is going on and on and on. That is how we see and make sense of the surrounding ambiance.
I guess know the expression “to have eyes in the back of your head” makes perfect sense.
Conducting the information.
So far everything is simple. We receive the information, the signal travels to the corresponding Brain’s areas and we act accordingly. But how does the signal travel? The CNS consists of nerve cells, Neurons, connected to each other with nerve fibers, Axons, and Dendrites. A neuron sends signals via typically only one Axon, going from this neuron to the other one, and receives signals from millions of other neurons through their extensions, Dendrites.
It is a bit tricky for the impulse to travel across an Axon because it is not a continuous piece of matter. A single axon consists of millions of small parts with, literally, emptiness between them. If you take ten pepperonis and place them on the table in one line you will get quite an accurate representation of an Axon. Here is a dilemma. The nerve impulse needs to jump from one pepperoni to another. Of course, In reality, the signal does not jump anywhere. It is simply being recreated inside the next “pepperoni” with help of the other chemicals called Neurotransmitters. We have many different, more than 60, neurotransmitters stored in each “pepperoni”.
When the nerve impulse reaches the edge of its current “pepperoni”, this “pepperoni” releases a cocktail of different neurotransmitters into that “inter-pepperoni” space, called Synaptic Cleft. The next “pepperoni” receives the cocktail, the cocktail’s neurotransmitters replicate the same nerve impulse which travels and “jumps” to the next “pepperoni” and so on and so forth.
As you can imagine it must be super fast otherwise we would move like sloths. No offense I do like those extremely cute animals yet they are a bit slow to me.
Processing the information.
The interesting part. After we received the information and conducted the signal to the Brain’s areas the magic happens. If the signal was relayed to the Limbic System, made up of multiple parts of the brain and responsible for emotions, you cry or feel fear, or you smile and laugh.
Let us assume you saw something funny. You saw and heard it. Now the information from the eyes and the ears traveled to the Limbic System. If It is perceived as funny then more signals were generated in the Limbic System and sent to your facial muscles to produce a nice wonderful smile and to your torso’s muscles to produce a nice Canadian laughter. The end result is that you are smiling and laughing, having fun, your mood is great.
Remember we were talking about neurotransmitters? We need them to conduct a signal across the nerve fibers, axons. So when you see something funny and laugh, the Brain produces neurotransmitters Dopamine and Serotonin, and hormones Endorphins. This cocktail makes you feel happy.
You See Fun -> The Brain produces Dopamine, Serotonin, and Endorphins - > You Smile
What does it have to do with a performance enhancer? This is a very good question. The Dopamine, besides making you feel happy, has multiple functionalities. One of its other major functions is to coordinate movements. To perform a movement the Brain uses Dopamine to convey signals to the skeletal muscles. The more complex movement is the more Dopamine is needed. The more Dopamine you have in the system the more coordinated movements you can perform.
In Parkinson's disease, the cells of the Brain responsible for Dopamine production are dying off for not yet understood reason. The result is catastrophic. It causes disruption in conducting signals to the muscles. Eventually, the Brain loses control of the heart muscles and breathing muscles. You all know well what happens after. I do hope the humanity will understand and cope with this horrific dysfunction very soon.
Back to the positive side. Since we know the general mechanism of smiling how can we use it? Simple. This pattern works in the opposite direction as well. If you force your facial muscles into a (fake?) smile then you will activate the Limbic System, because “the smiling pattern” is under its command. Once you did it, a little more Dopamine is produced. Extra Dopamine means that more signals can be delivered to the skeletal muscles including the muscle-stabilizers. Extra activation of the latter will lead to a smoother movement. Also, the Dopamine is a vasodilator. It dilates your blood vessels leading to calmness as more oxygen and nutrition can be delivered to your muscle cells.
You smile -> The Limbic System activated -> the Dopamine produced -> You move better
Dubious? Don’t be. Here is a practical example of how we can force a natural physiological reaction which is typically not under our control. After reading the next two sentences you will do what I will ask you to do. I want you to relax and picture a big nice yawn, picture your mouth opening wide, your jaw is dropping down, your chest is extending allowing a nice big sip of fresh oxygen into your lungs. Think of your facial muscles being stretched well by that nice big long yawn.
How many times did you yawn? I bet a couple and maybe you are still yawning. Ok, you can stop now. Why did it happen? Thinking of yawning excited the Brain’s area responsible for it, this area sent electrical signals to the corresponding muscles, those muscles contracted and you yawned. Because we rarely have a habit of suppressing yawning, it happens whenever we think of it. Of course, thinking of running will not make you run, because we do suppress running patter a lot and the muscles engaged in running require much stronger electrical stimulation to contract. Some strong chemical drugs can make you run. But let’s go back to our topic.
On the contrary, when you get agitated the body produces Norepinephrine (noradrenaline) and Epinephrine (adrenalin) thereby triggering “Fight or Flight” reflex. The blood vessels are constricted, the heart rate and blood pressure are increased to provide more blood for the skeletal muscles, the release of glucose from energy stores is increased, the blood flow to gastrointestinal system is decreased significantly. It also increases restlessness and anxiety. In other words, you are ready for rapid actions to survive.
Whereas you feel less pain and have more stamina, you are faster and more alert in this mode you will not be able to play piano well or dance with grace. As your movements will be more rapid, “jerky”. Though It might be applicable for some sports like martial art or sprints, it is definitely counterproductive in a sport which requires highly coordinated movements.
I, personally, use this performance enhancer in my training when learning variations of handstands and other gymnastics strength skills. I would strongly recommend that you use it as well. This enhancer is free, legal and widely available at any time!
Conclusion. Whenever you feel like you need a little boost, just induce a smile for a couple of seconds before every set. No worries, in North America, it is fine to smile for NO REASON!
Happy training my friends.