What are the motivating factors to the fantastic success of the Giants at their World Series playoffs:  experience, leadership, athletic skill? The one angle that is not being addressed has to do with the function of the players’ brains when concerned with the perception of winning or losing.

For example, I work with young athletes who are often placed in competitive situations that actually lead them to failure. Often, their brains are not ready to compete at a high level and as a result, they invariably fail. It is not because their bodies or abilities are weak, but only the result of how their brains perceive competition. When an athlete is placed in a competitive situation that prevents him from using his true potential, it can be long lasting could affect him for the rest of his/her life.

As complicated as the brain is with its billions of neurons, we can often simplify the reasons for athletic failure by connecting this to areas of the emotional brain or limbic system.  That is, when an athlete suffers from a fear of failure the limbic system’s thalamus goes into full mode and tries to decipher if the perception is real. If the perception is considered as having validity, the thalamus sends the perception to the brain’s amydala and the energy goes into fight or flight, which actually short circuits the athlete’s emotional and executive brain which can affect physical ability. Have you ever noticed the pivotal moment when a football player attempts to turn his emotion in a crucial game situation from flight (blocking of energy) to fight (aggressive energy)? He will push and shove a competitor to fight that fear of failure or flight. On the other hand, if the athlete is emotionally confident about his or her ability to compete, the brain shifts to the hippocampus and forms a positive and powerful relationship to the competition, which results in a zone-like experience. In fact, certain athletes actually rise to the occasion and use their full potential, resulting in a calm feeling of body and mind or zone-like state. I call this the Joe Montana brain. Rumor has it that during a tense Super Bowl timeout with only a few minutes left in the game with the 49er’s down by a few points, Montana looked up into the stands and pointed out to another player that John Candy was sitting in the stands. Montana was not in a fight or flight consciousness, but most likely operating from his hippocampus, which resulted in a feeling of calmness and a positive relationship to competition. The next is history. Montana proceeded to lead his team down the field with a consequent Super Bowl win!

Perhaps one reason why the Giants succeed in playoff and world series situations is not only that they have been there before, but because of this calm presence they have as a team which is predicated by their brains having a positive relationship to winning? We might call this the Baumgardner, Posey, or Sandoval effect. Again, for one reason or another this group could be operating out of the area of the brain that forms a positive relationship with winning and the result is greater athletic potential.

For further information about competition go to Dr. David Sortino’s Blog with the Santa Rosa Press Democrat and read In the Zone. It could further explain what Montana and/or the Giants’ players have experienced. David Sortino is director of The Neurofeedback Institute. E-mail him with your comments at davidsortino@comcast.net.

– David Sortino