Developing helpful and useful beliefs in sport: The theory of Cell Assembly2 Opinions
Buy and download up to 300 infographics!Buy infographics
Sign up as a rookie member to receive free guides, kitbags and news from The Performance Room
Tags:AnxietyBeliefsDoubtFearsPsychology of SportSelf BeliefSport PsychologySports PsychologyThoughtsWorry
About Spencer Vickery
I currently holds a bachelors and masters degree in sport and exercise psychology, this combined with 7 years experience as a professional golfer competing throughout the UK and Europe gives me an almost unrivalled amount of knowledge and understanding about the psychology behind performing under pressure and how the brain works during these pressure situations. I am always happy to answer any questions
Cell assembly theory developed by Donald Hebb (1949) explains how within the brain we develop neural pathways that act like roads, these are formed through learning, experiences, and the thoughts we have. In simple terms when a thought or experience is had cells fire in the brain, if the thought is rarely repeated and not particularly meaningful the neurons used to create the pathway are not likely to strengthen, however a thought that is regularly repeated or which holds significant power is likely to fire the cells associated with this thought often enough so that they become strengthened, what this means is that when we think a particular thought on a regular basis a neural pathway is created in the brain which becomes stronger and stronger each time and before long it becomes a hard wired part of our beliefs about the world.
So what can we learn from this and how can we use it in a sporting context? Well, we could quite simply decide on the way we would like to think and the beliefs we would like to hold, for example we might want to be great under pressure, we would then develop a belief for this such as “I play my best under pressure”, the more we tell ourselves this the more a neural pathway for this belief is fired in the brain and the stronger it becomes, after this has been rehearsed enough the neural pathway for this belief becomes so strong that the belief becomes extremely well ingrained and the cells can fire with little to no effort which is great, who wouldn’t want to have a belief that constantly jumps in to our train of thought reminding us that we are great under pressure! However, although this approach is all fine and well it may be worth considering any limiting beliefs we currently hold which we may have strong neural pathways for. You may find that there is a particular thought or belief that seems to jump in and cause you anxiety, fear, and doubts, for example you may have a big match coming up which at first seems like an exciting opportunity but immediately following this comes the belief or thought that tells you that this may go wrong and there could be potential for embarrassment, this clearly would be an unhelpful belief that would hinder a performer and there will be a strong neural pathway in the brain specifically for this limiting belief which seems to fire at will without us being able to do much about it. This is likely to have been learnt from previous experiences but it doesn’t mean it’s the truth and may be completely irrational, in order to rid ourselves of such limiting beliefs we must develop a new more helpful belief to directly counter against the limiting one, for the example given this may be something along the lines of “what others think or say about me really doesn’t bother me in the slightest, I play because I enjoy it”, we would then need to practice this thought and fire the neurons in the brain until a neural pathway is developed and strengthened, meanwhile the opposite limiting thought is gradually weakening due to being fired less often and in time dies off and the new helpful belief that “what others say or think really doesn’t bother me at all” becomes well ingrained and we find ourselves being much less concerned with what others say and think about us. But remember these old neural pathways may be well strengthened so this takes time and practice before changes can be made which is likely to take weeks or months.
One great example of how this works would be to consider an overgrown field that currently has one pathway through it that is well trampled down and easy to walk down, in the case above this may be our limiting belief pathway that is really easy to go down, to choose a different pathway would take lots of effort and it would be easy to give up and go back to the easy route, however if we decide that we want to create a new belief and stop going down the old trampled pathway we would need to take a new route and gradually trample a new pathway through the field, each time we go down this new route it becomes easier the next time and so on, after a while this new pathway will take no effort to walk down as it is nice and wide, meanwhile the old pathway has started to grow over due to being used less and before long becomes overgrown and much more difficult to go down, this is how the neural pathways in the brain work.
A few tips for choosing the beliefs you want are to make your beliefs realistic and logical, trying to create a belief that is far from realistic such as “I will win every time I play” is not likely to help us because this belief is likely to be contradicted often as there are other good players and teams around and it’s something which isn’t fully in our control, instead try to develop beliefs that will help us and that are rational, this way it won’t come back to haunt us in the future, a couple of examples may be “I enjoy pressure situations and I learn a lot from them”, “success for me is enjoying my sport and giving maximum effort start to finish” “I don’t expect to win every week but I am capable of winning a lot matches and I will certainly try my best”