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Biology 202, Spring 2005
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The Nervous System: The Ultimate Athlete

Amy Venditta

What makes Terrell Owens of the Philadelphia Eagles such a fantastic football star? Or Tiger Woods a great golfer? How is 5 foot 11, 165 pound Allen Iverson, on the Philadelphia 76ers, able to maneuver his body in such a way allowing him to score 60 points over 7 foot players in a basketball game. Why was Michael Jordon, one of the best basketball players ever, not able to excel as a baseball player? How was hockey player Wayne Gretzky able to get a shot off so quickly? (1) Believe it or not, the answer to each of these questions is the same: the nervous system. It seems that it is not merely skill, training, practice, muscle mass, or drive that makes a super athlete. The nervous system is responsible for producing naturally amazing, record-breaking athletes.

Although the nervous system has the power to create highly successful athletes, it is also responsible for the failure of certain athletes. For example, the heavyweight champion, Muhammad Ali, developed Parkinson's disease due to the fact that he was born with a weak substantia nigra, an area of the brain that helps to control movement. Lou Gehrig, the only one of Babe Ruth's teammates who gave him a run for his money, suffered from the disease amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, now known as Lou Gehrig's disease. (2)It was this disease, stemming from Gehrig's nervous system, which ended his career as well as his life; however, it may have also been Gehrig's nervous system that allowed him to be such a tremendous baseball player. Mutations, or quirks, within the nervous system can cause diseases such as Lou Gehrig's disease, a stunted substantia nigra, and Tourette's syndrome, but it may also be these same quirks within the nervous system that cause extraordinary quickness, hand-eye coordination, and athleticism in general. (3)

If we assume that brain equals behavior, meaning that everything is encompassed within the brain, than it can also be assumed that athletic ability is in the brain. However, much like the nature verses nurture argument, it is argued as to where athletic skill originates; whether or not one is born athletic. Muscle control and movement occurs when the electrical signals are sent via neurons from the brain and spinal cord throughout the body to the muscles. The motor cortex area of the brain controls movement by keeping almost a diagram of muscles used throughout the body. This area of the brain remembers muscles that are used and enables them to be electrically stimulated when needed. (4)

In a newborn baby, the motor cortex area of the brain is not completely developed. This is why a newborn baby's movement is limited to sucking, swallowing, and breathing. As the motor cortex area, or motor strip, within the brain begins to develop, the baby is able to perform simple gross movements, such as lifting the head. Despite the simplicity of gross movement, muscle control is much more complicated than it seems. In short, an electric signal must be sent from the brain to the muscle; however, a multitude of nerves and neurons are involved in this process, which all must be working adequately. After the signal has been sent through nerves insulated with myelin, and the muscle cells receive the signal, the muscles must then respond. It is incredible that this whole process occurs all of the time within a fraction of a second. Therefore, it is no small feat for a young child to perfect a motor skill such as walking. (5)

Not only do all of the child's nerves, neurons, and muscle cells need to be working and in conversation with each other, but the child also has to perfect such skills as balance and posture. Recall that the motor cortex area of the brain has a diagram of muscles that need to be used throughout the body. In the brain of a newborn baby, this diagram consists of only the muscles needed to suck, swallow, and breath. As the child's brain begins to develop further, and new muscles are discovered, such as those needed for balance and posture, these muscles are added to the muscle diagram in the motor strip of the brain. Therefore, it can also be assumed that as athletes learn new skills involving the manipulation of different muscles in different ways, this is information is added onto the muscle diagram. Thus the brain is constantly growing wider and changing to accommodate new and different skills. (6)

Since muscle control obviously originates from the brain, and the brain expands when new skills are learned involving new muscles and new sequences of muscles, it can be stated that athleticism originates in the brain. Therefore, success on the court or the field depends as much on the neurology as it does on physiology. There are three separate motor systems of the brain and spinal cord that control movement: the pyramidal tract (corticospinal tract), the cerebellar system, and the extrapyramidal system. The pyramidal tract is the part of the brain that directs movement, in the sense that the pyramidal tract transports the message that movement is needed to the motor neurons. The message that is transported to the motor neurons directs the spinal cord as to what specific movement is desired. The pyramidal tract also tells the spinal cord the sequence in which the specific muscles should be moved. For example, think about shooting a basketball. The whole body is involved in this task, not just the arms and hands. Therefore, the pyramidal tract must tell the motor neurons and the spinal cord that they need to direct muscles to shoot a basketball. Then the pyramidal tract must tell the motor neurons and the spinal cord to first grip the basketball with the hand muscles, then bend both knees, bend elbows, push the ball up, etc. The pyramidal tract is the director of movement, thus the output of movement depends on this tract. (7)

The cerebellar system, which is in the cerebellum area of the brain, is working all of the time controlling synergy and coordination of muscles. The cerebellar system works whether one is moving or not. Going back to the example of shooting a basketball, the cerebellar system allows for the coordinated movement of each muscle to make a smooth basketball shot, as opposed to each muscle working on its own, which would result in jerky movement. So far, we have discovered that in order for one to shoot a basketball, the pyramidal system must first direct the movement and sequence of muscles to be moved. Then the cerebellar system coordinates and synergizes the movement, so that the basketball is released in on smooth continuous movement. (7)

Assuming that this is all that is needed to shoot a basketball, then why shouldn't one be able to score all of the time? The cortex has measured the distance from the basketball, the weight of the ball, and thus the amount and sequence of muscle needed. The cerebellar system is working automatically, coordinating muscles. The third tract within the motor strip of the nervous system is the extrapyramidal tract. This tract travels directly from the brain to the spinal cord. It is the extrapyramidal tract that controls posture and balance. As new skills are learned and new muscles used, the extrapyramidal tract must continue to grow and adjust so that balance and posture is maintained. Although all sports depend on the extrapyramidal tract as much as the pyramidal tract and the cerebellar system, golf is a sport in which the extrapyramidal tract is especially important. In order to hit the golf ball as well as he does, Tiger Woods must shift his weight and balance all of his muscles in a specific way at a precise time in a fraction of a second without even thinking about it. (7)

It is because the extrapyramidal tract always has the ability to grow and change that golfers usually mature into their sport as they age. Other sports, however, like baseball and basketball do not focus as much on balance and posture, but more on the tasks of the pyramidal and cerebellar systems. The pyramidal and cerebellar systems, unlike the extrapyramidal tract, do not continue to continue to change as new skills are being learned. Therefore, it is for this reason that Michael Jordon was not as spectacular a baseball player as he was a basketball player. The window of opportunity to learn such sports as baseball and basketball is smaller than that of golf. (8) Thus it makes sense that after retiring as a professional basketball player, Michael Jordon picked up golf. (7)

Therefore, despite common stereotypes that athletes lack brain power, it seems that athletics have as much to do with the brain and the nervous system as physique. So how was Wayne Gretzky able to get a hockey shot off so quickly? A Canadian neurologist determined that Gretzky has the quickest reflexes every measured by this specific neurologist. Gretzky's muscle movement controlled by long loops of brain cells within the motor cortex of the brain occurs exceptionally quickly. Thus, it is due to Gretzky's quick brain cells that he was able to excel as he did in hockey. (1)

The nervous system gives the body the ability to perform incredible athletic accomplishments. As an avid weight-lifter John Abdo stated, "no brain, no gain". (9) Muscle control is not the only aspect of athletics that is based on the nervous system. It is said that competition itself is between 80% and 90% mental. (9) Although muscle control and movement and their relation to the nervous system have been thoroughly discussed, there are still many questions that have been left unanswered. Whether athletes are made or born is still an unanswered question. However, we have determined that the motor cortex of the brain is imperative in muscle control, and thus in athletics. We have also determined that parts of the motor cortex can continue to grow and learn, creating new neural diagrams of muscles and muscle use with the creation of new skills. As new skills are learned in a specific sport, muscles grow, as does the brain and nervous system. It is continuously evolving and changing to specific needs.

Therefore, it must be true then, that Michael Jordan's brain is different that Lou Gehrig's brain, which is different then Tiger Wood's brain, which may be why Michael Jordan was not a great baseball player, but an extraordinary basketball player. It seems that maybe Allen Iverson has a particularly quick pyramidal tract, allowing him to dart past defenders and shoot the basketball quicker than the defenders can respond to him. Maybe Terrell Owens has an extrapyramidal tract that is more evolved than most, allowing him to have exceptional balance and posture, so when he is tackled by a 300 pound defender, he can continue to run, stay on his feet, and carry the football. So, when the Nike advertisements say "Just Do It", they should be talking to the nervous system instead of the body.


1)Psychology Today, What Makes Athletes Great

2)Neurology Channel, Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis

3), Why Michael Couldn't Hit

4)Science Museum, How Do We Move?

5), Gross Motor Development

6) Dr. Harold L. Klawans, Why Michael Couldn't Hit, Chapter 5 The Bantam Ben Hogan, pp. 88-92

7)Online Sports, The Creative Athlete

8)Fitness Tech, No Brain No Gain

9)American Family Physician, Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis: Lou Gehrig's Disease

10)We Move, Normal Muscle Control

11)Building Baby's Brain, Prime Times for Learning

12)Competitive Edge, Sports PTSD

13)Baseball Think Factory, Swinging from the Heels

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