Lee Allen: Brain Neuroplasticity and Athletes

Katherine shai being coached by her father, lee allen

Katherine shai being coached by her father, lee allen


As a professional athlete, I am extremely fortunate to have had a father who was not only a successful wrestler and coach, but also an avid researcher on subjects pertaining to advancing the athlete. He read and wrote extensively on topics like the one below, and strongly believed in the power of the mind. After losing my dad in 2012, my family and I take pride in sharing and publishing his work. Since I was a child, I remember my father helping me work on easing my nerves and frustrations by using a breathing technique and counting down from 10. I remember him utilizing this same technique to ease his fears when he was in the hospital due to health and his breathing was challenged. He clearly had learned that skills from wrestling will transfer into the rest of life. I found this article years later, I hope you enjoy.

-Katherine Shai, founder LuchaFIT


Brain Neuroplasticity and the Application to Wrestling

by Lee Allen

There have been major breakthroughs in the knowledge of how the brain works and our ability to study that process. For years philosophers, psychologists and the medical community thought that the body and its brain functioned like a machine. With the advancement of the computer many said “that is it, that is how the brain works!”

The idea that the brain becomes hard wired with experience and repetition without possible change is now discredited. Early visionaries such as Socrates were closer to the truth. Socrates stated, “I think you can actually exercise the organ of thought the way people exercise when they do gymnastics.” Yet it took hundreds of years before science caught up to those ideas.   

lee allen wrestling at the 1960 olympic games in rome, italy

lee allen wrestling at the 1960 olympic games in rome, italy

The more recent discovery that the brain is adaptable and malleable is the most important advancement in the last 400 years. Breakthroughs in our ability to study the brain indicate that it is elastic and in fact can develop new neurons with new connections at an advanced age.

There have been some very amazing case studies of therapists working with stroke patients who have re-learned the skills of walking, talking, driving, typing and many other complex skills. They have been able to do this in spite of the fact that the area of the brain that controls movement & speech, when autopsied, still showed damage that couldn't account for the recovery.

Neuroplasticity refers to the brain’s ability to restructure itself due to training or practice. While it is accepted that change takes place through experience, learning and behavior, it is now known that thought and imagination can bring about change as well.

Data suggests a two way street.  We are not stuck with what we have. The Dali Lama suggests that in a real sense the brain we develop reflects the life we lead. Systematic spiritual practice along with disciplined activities results in changes in the very structure of the brain.

The film “What the Bleep Do We Know!?” delves into Quantum Physics which puts many of the foundations of science on its ear. The very physical existence of the atom is now in question.

We are the product of our emotions. Our receptor cells are all fed by proteins. If the cells are continually bombarded with certain emotional messages, a sister cell will divide with more receptor sites that supports that emotional response. We are truly how we live.  

This mind body connection has great implications for our sport of wrestling. Michael Murphy who is an author and professor at Stanford has done work on mental training. He has worked with many Olympic Athletes and pro golfers. He studied in India with The Dalai Lama who raised the question “can the mind change the brain?”

The book written by Murphy in 1992, “The Future of the Body,” is considered to be a classic in sports literature. His topics include extraordinary human functions such as healing, hypnosis, martial arts, yogic techniques, telepathy, clairvoyance and superhuman feats.

1999 USA National champions

1999 USA National champions

The discovery that the brain is “plastic” with the ability to reorganize itself so that other areas of the brain can take on different responsibilities makes it necessary for us to reexamine our ideas about activities and how we learn skills. We have underestimated the ability of the human brain to adapt, change and influence physical performance.

The revelation that a thought can remap our brains has coined the phrase “neurons that fire together, wire together.” With this concept in mind, there is no limit to what we can accomplish in a very complex activity like wrestling. These abilities allow us to use our brains in ways we are yet to discover.

When different neurons activate at the same time as a response to an event, the neurons become associated with one another and the connection becomes stronger. Inversely, when we respond to an activity, we must make the right choice or bad habits are reinforced.

We are easily distracted by the routines of the day. Not only must we focus on the mind body connection we also must be able to focus on the task at hand. At practice we must develop the ability to put all mundane issues aside so we can perform at an optimum level or we run the risk of associating the unpleasant daily tasks foremost on our minds with the skills we are trying to master. This will result in a negative feeling about the wrestling practice or the skill being performed.

Research shows when you surround a habit you would like to change in a positive context, you can bring about positive outcomes. This means linking new habits (even habits deemed difficult or challenging) to an environment or situation you enjoy will help support a transformation. Using music, selecting a pleasant environment while visualizing or imagining a pleasant favorite place encourages the desired change.

When we know that desired change is indeed possible, we are able to focus on ways we want to grow. Now we no longer need to question if change is possible for us. “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then is not an act, but a habit”-Aristotle

Pathways not utilized with the learning task will be utilized by other pathways. “Use it or lose it”. Perhaps that is why we see gifted wrestlers become distracted, breakdown, or fall short of their potential. If we let negative thoughts and self doubt encroach into our thought process we are mapping our brains with new conflicting messages.

Excellent performance requires more than physical ability. Without the right mental approach, a talented wrestler will simply be one of many. Goals are not achievable until one forms the right habits. With the right mental approach it is possible to be the best in the world.

With the knowledge that science has verified the importance of the mind body connection practitioners of alternative spiritual practices such as yoga, Buddhism, and visualization are now validated.

Many wrestlers are convinced they learn better with methods which they are most comfortable. Open yourself to other ideas and precepts. Visualization and alternative spiritual methods gives us the opportunity to utilize all the senses and will open up new possibilities for learning. Give it a chance. Make the mind body connection.

Lee Allen

BS University of
Oregon MA San Francisco State

Oregon Hall of Fame, 
California Hall of Fame, & National Wrestling Hall of Fame

Lee Dale Allen was born on December 28, 1934. Originally from St. Francis, Kansas, Allen and his family moved to Sandy, Oregon (near Portland, Oregon) during the Dust Bowl in 1938. Being a star athlete in high school (winning four state titles), and college level (attending University of Oregon), Allen competed in two Olympics (1956, 1960). He is one of two of the only American wrestlers to make an Olympic Team in both Freestyle (1956) and Greco-Roman (1960). Allen was named the assistant coach of the 1972 and the 1976 USA Greco-Roman Olympic Team and was named the Head Coach for the 1980 Olympic Greco-Roman Olympic Team, which was later boycotted (1980 Olympic Boycott). Finally settling down in El Granada, California, he coached Skyline College in San Bruno for over 30 years, helped start BAWA (Bay Area Wrestling Association) and began the first women's wrestling program at Menlo College. He earned a Coach of the Year award in 2009 presented by the WCWA (Women’s College Wrestling Association). In May 2010, Allen announced his retirement as Head Woman's Wrestling Coach at Menlo College. Allen passed on June 11, 2012.