BOOK REVIEW: The Athletic Brain by Amit Katwala

BOOK REVIEW: The Athletic Brain by Amit Katwala

Only recently published a few months ago, “The Athletic Brain – How Neuroscience is Revolutionising Sport and Can Help You Perform Better,” by Amit Katwala, is almost the natural progression of The Sports Gene by David Epstein. We move on from the nature versus nurture debate. The focus of this book is how the brain can be trained specifically for certain skills, and how technology can speed up this training process and therefore fast track athlete performance.

BOOK REVIEW: The Athletic Brain by Amit Katwala

Book Synopsis

“The Athletic Brain” by Amit Katwala covers three key aspects of sports science and athletic performance:

  1. Firstly, how training can change the brain and as a result, break the long time 10,000-hour expertise rule,
  2. Secondly, why some athletes choke under pressure and how you can avoid this, and
  3. Finally, understanding the concept of flow and how to train the brain to unleash an athlete’s full potential.

Review of “The Athletic Brain” by Amit Katwala

I really enjoyed reading “The Athletic Brain!” It delves into how the brain actually responds and learns specific skills to aid performance. This is without training in the traditional way but using technology. These new methods of training can fast track an athlete’s skill acquisition. And significantly, they also allow one to do so by minimising physical and repetitive stress injuries.

Key underlying concept

If you have read “The Brain That Changes Itself” by Norman Doidge (another fantastic must read book!), you will already have a deep understanding of neural plasticity.

If not, no problem as the book explains this concept. It describes how the brain is flexible, is able to learn from new experiences, adapt and recover from injuries. It is this concept that underlies “how practice has changed the brains of elite athletes”. Understanding this can help amateur athletes improve their performance too. It has also helped scientists to “develop new brain-training tools to push the boundaries of human performance.”

Book highlights

The art of anticipation

  • Find out why anticipation skills and visual acuity are such significant contributors to athletic performance. 
  • Visual acuity is more advantageous in certain sports such as softball, basketball, cricket or baseball. However, if you don’t have it naturally, find out how you can make up for it, as Sir Donald Bradman who had below average eyesight, did.
  • In fast ball sports, elite athlete brains are specialised for anticipation. Mirror neurones help athletes to learn from watching opponents. “Combined with their ability to look for visual cues in the right places, this enables them to create more accurate predictions more quickly, and to react at seemingly superhuman speeds.” This sets elite athletes apart.
  • Find out why learning by observation is powerful in skill acquisition.

The changing brain

  • Neural plasticity allows athletes to learn new skills.
  • Do you know which is the best way to learn? Intensive sessions over an extended period of time or weekly lessons over a longer period? Find out what the research suggests.
  • Why then, even after you’ve mastered a skill, is practice beneficial?
  • And did you know that exercising boosts the levels of brain protein called BDNF? This has been associated with a huge increase in the rate at which neurons grow new branches. This means it can help you learn and remember new skills and information better. So find out when the best time for studying is in relation to the timing of your exercise!
  • Other concepts of “use it or lose it”, the best age for neuro plasticity, the importance of content and quality of training and the shortcut to the 10,000-hour rule are also addressed.

Breaking the 10,000-hour rule

  • From this understanding of how specific skills contribute to top athletic performance and how the brain can be trained for particular needs, the author then looks into the world of elite athletes training with purpose built aids and facilities to unlock their athletic potential.
  • These offer athletes accelerated training and learning through simulations, which also minimise risking injury through actual contact play.
  • The key is repetition. The Footbonaut (a ball feeding machine erected on a 14m square grid) is used by top soccer teams to allow players to receive and take more passes than they would during an ordinary training session but in the same amount of time. For example, it is said that 15 minutes equates to one week of training, without the physical stresses of contact play.
  • GlaxoSmithKline Human Performance Lab’s mantra is “train above the neck” and offers a range of different touch-screen based tools, each adapted to the specific needs of a particular position in a  particular sport.” Here, athletes can undergo significantly more amounts of training than you could tolerate physically.
  • This is a new way forward to breaking the 10,000-hour rule in elite sports training, by accelerated expertise learned through software simulations. 
  • For most of us, we do not have access to such facilities. But there are other ways you can accelerate training. iPhone apps to train peripheral vision, for example, are regularly used by world class soccer teams and are accessible. 
  • But understanding which skills to develop is also essential to training effectively, such as quiet eye training and visualisation. If you are a shooter (eg. netball or basketball) do you know where on the ring you should be focusing on to improve accuracy?
  • Read the tips offered by the author for training smarter and unlocking your brain’s potential for amateur athletes.

Choking and the power of pressure

Discover what causes of choking, paralysis by analysis and the yips. The author explains what is happening to your body under stressful conditions to induce these performance restrictions. Then find out how you can actually train your brain to function more effectively when under pressure with the three specific techniques given.

Being in the zone and the concept of flow

This is when your performance is at its best. Flow is when you have heightened awareness and increased attention. It pushes the boundaries of your ability with the inner voice of doubt switched off. In relation to the 10,000 expertise theory, “what the research shows is that flow cuts it in half”. Read what the shortcuts to peak performance are, to get you in your flow and in the zone.

Practical tips to try at home

At the end of certain chapters, there is a “Try this at home” section. Here is where you will find the practical suggestions for amateur athletes to improve their training and hopefully performance, based on the research findings and elite athlete training programs discussed.


I would highly recommend “The Athletic Brain” to athletes and coaches and to anyone interested in sport and sports science.

The author, Katwala, offers a well-researched insight into the latest technologies and strategies used by top athletes to get ahead. He also explains the science behind performances in a logical and easy to understand way, no prior medical knowledge needed!

He gives examples of how high-level athletes use these new techniques to speed up their hours to expertise. And then most interesting for most of us, he offers tips on how amateur athletes can use similar strategies at home to improve performance.

You can purchase a copy of “The Athletic Brain” by Amit Katwala from direct from the publisher, Simon and Schuster Australia.*  Or you can also purchase the book from The Book Depository** at currently 40% OFF THE RRP! The Book Depository also offers FREE delivery worldwide.

Interested in more?

Are you interested in sport and or the science behind the development of athletes and sporting achievements over time, then you may also be interested in:

BOOK REVIEW: The Sports Gene by David Epstein1. “The Sports Gene – talent, practice and the truth about success” by David Epstein offers a detailed analysis into a long time common question of “Nature v Nurture”.

It provokes inquisitive thinking about what makes an athlete a champion.

You can read our book review of “The Sports Gene” by David Epstein here.



2. “Are athletes really getting faster, better, stronger?” Here you can watch David Epstein’s, author of “The Sports Gene”, inciteful presentation about the factors that have played a part in the record-breaking milestones of athletes over the past century…or so it seems?


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*Active + Nourished was given a copy of “The Athletic Brain” by the publisher, Simon and Schuster Australia. All views expressed are my own opinion. Please refer the Active + Nourished Disclaimer for further information. 

**Active + Nourished is a Book Depository affiliate. This means that if you choose to purchase through this link we will receive a small commission from the sale. This is at no extra cost to you. This will assist in the development and maintenance of the Active + Nourished website.

2 Replies to “BOOK REVIEW: The Athletic Brain by Amit Katwala”

  1. Thank- you for recommending this book. The use of science to improve skills in elite athletes is very interesting. I think we have a lot to learn about the brains neuroplasticity and unexplored potentials. I am excited to see if the training methods used for the elite athletes will one day help average sports enthusiasts like myself and my kids!

    1. Appreciate your feedback Martine. It really is a very interesting book and I also love how it offers ideas improvement for the recreational person who loves sport. Hope these techniques work for you and your family.

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