Habits and High Fives: How Neuroscience Helps Us Understand Ultimate, Performance, and Depression

by | May 4, 2015, 10:54am 0

Alex Korb became the coach of UCLA Bruin Ladies Ultimate after the founder abandoned their first practice due to boredom. Thrust into an unfamiliar role, Korb has since become one of the longest-tenured coaches in the women’s division, taking BLU to eight national championship tournaments in the last decade. As a postdoctoral neuroscience researcher at UCLA in the department of psychiatry, Korb studies the neuroscience of depression, particularly in how to predict who will respond positively to different types of treatment. His blog in Psychology Today, titled Prefrontal Nudity, exposes “how the tendencies of your brain can both ruin and enrich your life.”

Korb’s recently-released book, The Upward Spiral: Using Neuroscience to Reverse the Course of Depression, One Small Change at a Time, breaks down the complex processes that cause depression and offers dozens of straightforward strategies to rewire the brain and live a happier, healthier life. Korb draws heavily on his own experiences both playing and coaching ultimate for examples of how athletic activity, social interaction, and positive habit building can literally reshape your brain. In the interview below, we discuss how his own depression and the tragic suicide of one of his players drew him towards research into depression, how neuroscience can improve your in-game habits, his approach to coaching, and the differences between men and women.

In your book, you’re very candid about your own history with depression. How did this experience influence your decision to study neuroscience and how does it affect your work today?

I’ve always been interested in emotionality and control of emotions. I’ve always been emotional, and have always wondered what the differences were between my brain and other people’s. The thing that really pushed me into graduate school was my own experience in my senior year at Brown of complete uncertainty of what I wanted to do with my life. Had I wasted my time and effort? My girlfriend had just broken up with me and I had a root canal that kept me up at night with pain. It was also the middle of winter and the lack of sunlight was affecting me.

When I started coaching at UCLA in the fall of 2004, I found out after a few months that one of the freshmen had severe depression. I reflected back on my own college experience to recognize that ultimate was one of the only things that I really enjoyed and looked forward to. The only thing that got me out of my apartment was having to go to practice. I encouraged her to continue to come to practice because she would often skip it when she was feeling down. She agreed that it was good for her. Even then, despite being aware of it, she had to miss Sectionals because she just didn’t have the energy to make it out. She came to Regionals and played great and loved it. She had an online journal and wrote about our game-to-go loss and how optimistic she was about the next year. She wrote about how glad she was that the coaches were so supportive and how her teammates had been so helpful. The unfortunate thing was that I didn’t get to see that post until five months later when she committed suicide.

Ultimate had clearly been a positive force in her life, but as someone said at her memorial service, she fought the battle every day against depression and lost that battle once. I was really devastated. I was working in a neuroscience lab at the time and was thrown into the chaos of thinking “what’s so great about what I’m doing with my life?” That event, combined with my own experiences, made me realize that I wanted to do something bigger and more important. I knew that if I went to grad school I could help more people, and if I stayed at UCLA I could keep coaching and make a broader difference. I wanted to figure out what was going on in the brain with depression and whether we could predict with greater precision how the brain responds to treatment.

How did you respond as a coach to her suicide, and how did your team rally around each other to perform as well as they did that year?

We all found out about it at 10PM and everyone came to the same place in the dorms. We were all together until 1 or 2AM. We had a tournament in San Diego that weekend and there was no question of whether or not we would go. We all wanted to be with each other and play this sport that we love and that Mandy loved too. It felt great to be together and to distract ourselves from what was going on, but also to honor her. All of the other teams were very supportive and wore armbands in remembrance. Our team wanted to be together in stressful times and rely on each other. I’m sure that that event did bring the team together. I was very impressed with how the team rallied around to support each other, and I also needed that support from them because I was devastated.

We didn’t make nationals that year. There was one bid and we were down 11-6 against Colorado in the game to go to the Game-to-Go. We came back to tie the game in about 10 minutes, then lost on a huck to (current Fury star) Alex Snyder after her shoe came off. That was very heartbreaking, but being heartbroken is very different from depression. Being heartbroken means that there was something that was joyous. Even though you’re sad you’re still hopeful, and when you experience something like that as a group it brings people together. Whereas depression is not necessarily feeling sad all of the time. Depression is very often this emptiness of emotion.

You often hear people describe depression with the phrase “the brain is broken.” In your book, you say this isn’t true.

There’s no EEG or MRI or brain scan or lab test that you can do to diagnose someone with depression. There also isn’t one “depression,” and there are many ways people can find themselves stuck in depression. Depression is clearly a disorder of the brain, but not like Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s where we know that there’s a buildup of certain proteins or a certain region of neurons is dying. It’s much more a functional disorder of how all of the brain circuits interact. There might not be anything wrong with any individual brain circuit, but their function is dictated by biology and by genetics and development, and by current life circumstances. The interaction of all of those things creates a pattern of depression activity that your brain can find itself stuck in. There’s nothing “wrong” with the brain. It’s just stuck in a certain pattern.

Why is there still such a stigma with depression? Is it related to how little we know about it?

Before we understand the biological basis of something, it’s much easier to just blame someone for it. We all to some extent have felt the edge of depression. We confuse depression with normal sadness and mourning. When we feel that, we say “Oh, I was able to snap out of it by doing X,Y, and Z” and so we become judgmental towards people that can’t do that. It’s the same way that some self-made millionaires become very judgmental of poor people by saying “if they just really tried they could stop being poor.” Simple things like exercise and positive thinking do have an impact on depression, but those aren’t enough for most people with the disorder. Just because those things work, that doesn’t mean that depression is all in a person’s head, or that they should be able to easily overcome it.


Why are women twice as likely as men to be depressed? How does this affect your teams and your relationship to your teams?

Women have brains that are more emotionally reactive than men. Women are also far more attuned to the people around them. A woman in a crappy relationship is far more likely to be strongly affected by it. It’s easy to say that women are so emotional and look at that as a negative–and people often use that to put down women–but really women have more emotional depth. Your brains have these circuits of emotion, and some people are more active in these circuits. One of the classic experiments is to put people inside a functional MRI scanner to measure brain activity and show them pictures of faces with different emotional expressions. Some people are more attuned to subtle changes in facial, speech, and emotional patterns, and so their brains have bigger responses to them. People who have brains that are more emotional are more likely to develop depression. It’s possible to develop depression from not having enough emotion, but often having so much emotionality creates a strong response to disappointment and loss in your life and the emotion circuits become fatigued and shut down. Fortunately for women, antidepressant medication tends to work better than for men.

Early on, before I read a book called “The Female Brain,” I was very frustrated sometimes by the team. They would be doing stupid stuff that we hadn’t practiced and I would try to convey to them what they needed to do differently. Whenever I got frustrated they would also get frustrated and it wouldn’t work. I wanted to say “Stop reacting to how I’m feeling and just listen to the words that I’m saying!” At first I thought of that as a weakness, and I think a lot of people react like that and say men are more logical and women are more emotional. But in reality, you can look at that as a positive. Women are more emotionally attuned and responsive to the people around them. The problem was not their emotional reactivity–it was my emotionality and my frustration. They responded to my emotional frustration because they cared about why I thought of them and it was having a negative effect. I realized that if I could just control my frustration and how I’m expressing myself, then that will have a positive effect on the rest of the team. Obviously it’s very easy to use judgmental language and say that men are better at certain things, but it’s just as easy to say that men are emotionally stupid.

If you’re teammates with someone who you suspect to have symptoms of depression, what should you look for and what can you do to help?

It’s sometimes difficult to spot, because people with depression are often very concerned with not wanting to make the people around them feel bad. It’s one of the more sinister aspects of depression. You feel like you’re this huge burden on the people that you love. You can look for changes in their emotional state or sleep habits, or signs like weight loss. Sometimes there are subtle clues. They will be laughing one moment but exhibit a heaviness when no one is watching. They might isolate themselves more than they used to. The signs are difficult to spot unless you’re close with the person. If you suspect they are having a difficult time, just talking to them about it and letting them know you’re there to support them can be helpful. Let them know that there are many small things they can do to help, even if they feel like big things are too much of a challenge. Having that one supportive, non-judgmental person in your life as a friend is huge.

How can ultimate help reverse the downward spiral of depression?

Exercise in and of itself reduces stress hormones like cortisol and increases brain-derived neurotrophic factor, which promotes nerve growth and makes your neurons more robust, particularly in susceptible regions of the limbic system (the emotional part of the brain). It increases the neurotransmitters seratonin and norepinephrine, which are lower in people with depression. It has effects on the opioid system by increasing endorphins and even affects the endocannabinoid system, which makes you feel happy and increases appetite.

On top of that, physical interaction helps combat depression by releasing oxytocin. There are studies showing that basketball teams that touch each other more have better teamwork and trust each other more. Exercise causes changes in the brain’s electrical activity during sleep and makes it more restful. Those are the same changes that anti-depressant medication cause. The social aspect of being around and talking to other people that are supportive of you can help improve your mood. Dopamine makes it feel rewarding when we win something, which is related to the neurocircuitry of addiction. Positive social interactions also release dopamine.

Habits are a really important thing, because they’re what you do when you’re not thinking about what you’re supposed to do. Life feels really difficult when every action has to be made through a conscious decision. If you don’t have any habits, then your pre-frontal cortex (the thinking part of the brain) has to do everything. Should I get out of bed or should I stay in bed? Should I have cereal or oatmeal? If everything is a decision, then that overloads the pre-frontal cortex. One of the problems in depression is that the habit circuit (called the striatum) has reduced activity because you’re not automatically doing these things that you don’t have to think about. That’s why unemployment can be a huge risk factor for depression. When you have a job, you get up in the morning, eat breakfast, take a shower, go to work, and do all sorts of little things that keep you moving and release dopamine throughout the day. Having to be at ultimate practice at 5 o’clock helps you maintain your emotional state even when you don’t feel like it. If you only do things based on what you feel like at the time, you’re subject to the whims of the random fluctuations of your limbic system.

Is college ultimate beneficial for new students? Can the sheer number of obligations and activities cause overload and burnout?

There’s a natural human need to want to fit in to a group and be respected by that group. We are a social species. One of the problems people have when they go away to college is leaving the social networks that are built up during high school. It’s an exciting time to meet a bunch of new people, but it’s also easy to feel very isolated. That’s why a lot of people hang out with their own dorm almost exclusively. There are shared activities and it forms a sense of camaraderie. If you don’t have a group to help form an identity then college life can be far more stressful. That desire to form a group explains why fraternities and sororities are so successful.

The reason why ultimate is so great is that it doesn’t have the same kinds of stressors like a varsity sport, where all of your time is taken up by practice. It’s like a fraternity that has a more specific, defined purpose. That sense of purpose, that social interaction and support, the exercise, habits of regular practice times–that gives structure to your day, which helps you to be more effective. I’ve spoken to so many people that say, “Yes, ultimate takes up so much time, but if I had that time I would just waste it on video games or drink more. I’m actually more effective at studying when I have limited time because I have to be more conscientious.”

Korb coaching Stanford BLU

Korb coaching UCLA BLU

Have you changed your approach to coaching over time?

Yes. I think I changed my approach somewhat for the worse, for a while. We made it to the game-to-go our first year ever as a team and lost in the semifinals the next year. The third year we made it to finals of Nationals. Even though we were favorites for the next two years, we lost in the semifinals and then lost in the quarters after that. I would say I was very successful as a coach early on. One of the things that happens when you’re successful early on is you don’t actually understand what made you successful. In years seven and eight, I thought I was more clever than I really was. Most of the early success had nothing to do with me, and I may have done some things inadvertently that worked without me understanding why. Conflict resolution within the team, random inspirational and motivational techniques, trying to keep people on the same page. Things that had very little to do with anything specific to ultimate or any skills or drills, but had a lot to do with aspects of motivation, social interaction, and team building. I didn’t realize how important those things were.

Part of it was getting older and having more age separation. I thought I wouldn’t be able to influence them in the same way. I realize now how important those things are in helping unlock peak athletic potential. It’s easy to dismiss them in the same way that people dismiss potential cures for depression. There are changes in how people react to each other when they trust each other more. There are changes to how your body responds to pain and fatigue when you feel supported by the people around you. Oxytocin is a neural hormone that is very connected to love and trust and that reduces anxiety, which improves athletic performance. All of these “soft” skills are really the most important, and that’s what I try to emphasize more now in my coaching.

Why is practice so important for how you perform during games?

Practice is so important because the striatum, which controls habits, really only cares about repetition. The more you do something, the stronger it gets encoded in your brain. More importantly, stress biases the brain towards acting out your oldest, most routine habits. If your practices are not intense, stressful, or competitive, then you’re not encoding those habits as deeply. When you are stressed out in games, you will automatically revert to your most deeply encoded habits. You have to teach people the habits you want them to do, but then you have to drill them through increasing levels of intensity. It doesn’t really matter where the stress or intensity comes from, because we only have one stress response. The Navy SEALS do a lot of training with sleep deprivation, doing situps with arms linked in crashing waves, and things like that. It’s not necessarily the case that they will be sleep deprived, cold, and wet on a mission. A lot of times they’ll be on helicopters flying into a mission. But that lack of sleep, that cold, that wet, it all helps activate the stress response and help the SEALs perform better when they are being shot at by the enemy. Doing drills when you’re really tired can be helpful, as well as figuring out ways to increase the competitiveness at practices or adding artificial time constraints. Even just getting people to be excited at practice helps–through rewards–because practice is slightly less useful if people are learning in an environment where they are less excited.

How do you train the brain for creativity, flexibility, and the ability to adapt to new situations while still drilling these habits? What happens when teams take away what you’ve drilled?

That is the most difficult thing to do with a team. One way to do it, which is largely Oregon’s strategy, is to scrimmage with, say, a five-second stall count and tell the team to just deal with it. When you’re constantly thrown into these types of situations and told to “just deal with it,” you become better at dealing with it. Improvising is a skill, and the way you do it is by encouraging it as a coach. If you are constantly yelling at your players that there is one right way to do things, then they are going to try to do that one right thing. That can be a successful model sometimes. Stanford is far more regimented, and if everyone is drilled well then you can add subtle variations. But you have to be clear in the strategy you’re giving your team. If you want them to be really disciplined, but then also creative at other times, chances are you will do poorly at both. Of course, my philosophy is to do both [laughs]. I prefer jazz. There is a certain chord structure and time signature that everyone recognizes, but people are free to improvise within that structure.

How important is motivation to on-field success?

Motivation plays an important role in learning and memory. With some teams you can do the same drill over and over and get a lot out of it, but you have to build the character and culture of that team to be excited about that. If they’re not excited, they’re just going to be doing a poor job at it and the habits that emerge will be worse. The third year of BLU, when we were one of the best teams in the country, we finished third at sectionals. The team was really down on themselves and anxious because they had never made nationals before. I was really frustrated too, but I realized that my frustration would pile onto them. It was right after Easter, so I went to CVS and picked up some discount candy to give them during practice. I realized their own frustration was inhibiting their inherent motivation and we needed to focus more on positive emotions. That helped them regain their enthusiasm and play their best.

I think of the nucleus accumbens (the part of the brain that focuses on what is pleasurable) and striatum (the brain’s habit circuit) in the context of game situations. When you are really excited and amped up, those riskier throwing decisions look a little more appealing. You can’t necessarily control your emotions, but you can recognize that you are feeling excited and tell yourself “maybe that huck isn’t as good of a decision as it feels right now.” If you’ve drilled all the habits well in practice, then in games–as long as you don’t get carried away by your enthusiasm or overwhelmed by pessimism–your habits are correct and you can trust yourself. The only time you need to check your impulses is when you notice you’re getting a bit too excited. You have to make a habit of what to do when I notice I’m a little too excited. I’m going to make a big fake and throw it to the dump. Or, what habits you should have when you’re feeling a bit frustrated and intense. Okay, I’ll just step past and try to break the mark. So having those habits in place when your emotions are getting the better of you are also important.


What should players focus on before a game to prepare the mind for competition?

The hardest part about a game is the before the game because your whole nervous system is something unique to humans. We’re the only animals that know what’s going to happen in the future. We know that we’re going to be competing soon so we’re activating our fight or flight response, but we’re not actually doing anything yet. It makes us feel very uneasy. That’s why it’s really important to have a pregame routine because doing something habitually helps diminish the limbic system fight-or-flight response.

I think team warmup is better than individual warmup, but the most important thing is that it’s consistent. If you’ve done individual warmups for the whole season and that’s working well for your team, you shouldn’t change it just before Nationals. In some sense, a lot of decisions that we make about what drills or warmups to run are the placebo effect. It only works because your team believes it works, but there’s no actual power in it. The repetition is what is most important.

When players explain their poor performance by saying they were “overthinking it,” what does that mean neurologically? What does it mean to be “in the zone,” and how do you train for that?

My captain in college, Moses Rifkin, introduced me to a book called the Inner Game of Tennis.  The discussion of zen and how it influences the brain made me even more interested in studying neuroscience and the underlying principles of The Upward Spiral. He talks about non-judgmental awareness, which is an aspect of Buddhism. It is a feature and a pattern of activity of the pre-frontal cortex that it can, but doesn’t always, do. The way you achieve peak athleticism is when each part of the brain is doing what it is best at. Because the pre-frontal cortex knows about the future, it can start worrying too much about it and try to control too much that it can’t control. It can try to interfere with your habits because it’s worried that the habits aren’t good enough. That can lead to overthinking.

Throwing, for example, is something that is controlled by the striatum and the motor cortex. They determine which part of the muscle contracts at which time. Those are things that should not be under conscious control when you are trying to execute them. But if the pre-frontal cortex is very concerned about the outcome, it tries to interfere which these automatic functions and makes it worse. In that sense you have to let the conscious mind get out of the way. The pre-frontal cortex is good at noticing different aspects of strategy or decision-making, but not adding an emotional attachment to them. The pre-frontal cortex isn’t the emotional part of the brain, but the thoughts and worries that you have can trigger the emotional part of the brain. If you’re like, “Oh, that other defender seems to be a bit close while I’m trying to throw so I’m going to break the mark to the person he’s supposed to be guarding,” that’s a non-judgmental awareness. The fact is, there are two defenders guarding me. But you can have an emotional reaction like “Oh my god, there are two people!” without an awareness of how to be flexible. The pre-frontal cortex is good at noticing things and making decisions and helping to calm the limbic system when it starts to freak out, but the ideal communication between all of those areas is what we call being In the Zone.

How do you train that?

By training the habits you want in the right way. When you first learn a habit it very much involves the pre-frontal cortex, but it transfers over to the striatum the more you do it. If you are trying to train a specific habit, you have to have opportunities that are not stressful so that the pre-frontal cortex can be engaged and make sure you’re learning it in the right way. Then you have to crank up the intensity so that the pre-frontal cortex no longer has to be involved and the striatum learns it and acts it out under stress.

Is it the same phenomenon as saying “the game is slowing down”?

When you are thinking about lots of irrelevant details, you are conscious of more stuff happening and therefore feels like time is moving faster. This is particularly true when you are having an emotional response to all of those details. Learning to have non-judgmental awareness helps there to be less information coming from the outside and also less emotional information coming from your brain itself, helping time to slow down. There are also small aspects of bio-feedback that can help. For example, when you quickly look all over the field and start faking and pivoting really fast, that tells your brain that you are stressed out and it doesn’t function optimally. Learning to have bigger movements or looking more intentionally at one part of the field can help alter that biofeedback.

Some of the best players I’ve ever watched seem almost eerily casual.

When you are learning new athletic activities, the cerebellum controls and optimizes your movements. It’s only job is to get rid of extra-muscular activity. When someone first learns to swing dance they look very stiff. That’s because you’re using too much muscle. If you do it over and over again and optimize that behavior you learn to do the same movement with less muscle. That’s one reason why better throwers look more casual – because they’re using less muscle. When you fake too much, you’re sending a signal to your brain that way too much stuff is happening. You’re also signaling to your defender that you’re afraid. I love it when I mark in zone and thrower starts to fake a lot to break me. I know that the thrower is solely focused on me and not whether it’s even a good decision to try to break me at this point. It’s just movement for the sake of movement.

Something I tell my team is that being calm only helps you, but looking calm helps everyone on your team. I’ll tell a player that’s faking all over the place that they don’t look calm but they tell me that they feel totally zen on the inside. It’s probably true that they feel a sense of calm, but it’s also true that they would feel slightly calmer if they weren’t faking so much. You have six other people that you’re playing with, and if they don’t perceive you as calm they aren’t going to set up their cuts as much and rush to get the disc by worrying about a quick turnover.

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