University College Utrecht alumnus uses experience as a professional athlete to improve the performance of a musician

portrait of Beorn Nijenhuis

Beorn Nijenhuis is well known in the international speed skating scene and represented the Netherlands at the 2006 Winter Olympics. Currently he works as a researcher in the field of Neurobiology and Neurosciences. Beorn combined his experiences as an athlete and his academic knowledge towards a surprising goal: improving the performance of bass player James Oesi. This month he presented his research results along with a performance by James at Muziekgebouw aan ‘t IJ in Amsterdam. We talk to him about his pathological curiosity, the human nervous system and what he valued most about his time at University College Utrecht.

How did this project start? How did you and James end up working together?

I did some part-time work for the conservatory. I have been teaching an elective course for master students of the conservatory in Amsterdam. I’ve been concerned with the subject for some time. Some people are just pathologically curious. I’m one of those people. I just can’t stop, even if I wanted to. And some of the questions that I find most interesting to answer are questions in relation to pursuits of highly practice skills. That’s something I find interesting.

Some people are just pathologically curious. I’m one of those people. I just can’t stop, even if I wanted to.

You created a training schedule for James, based on your own experiences and research. How did you approach this?

One of the ways that you can think about my approach actually has an interesting parallel with the composition of music itself. Or at least it can be used as an interesting metaphor. It was my job to be kind of a composer of the hours of James’ days, weeks and months. And throughout that entire period I build in patterns of behaviour that hopefully were conducing to improved results. This process is something I know very well because it’s a process that I had to engage in personally as a professional athlete for many years. Most people have a strange idea of what the real reason is why athletes are so good at what they do. They think it’s what they eat and what they do as far as training. There is a lot of ‘what’s’, but the truth is that the ‘how’ is actually far more important than the ‘what’. It’s a combination of events and behaviours that are placed in a very specific order. The order creates the value.

What are some of the things that you can hold on to when you are composing this kind of symphony of behaviour?

Firstly, the human nervous system appreciates contrast, it kind of has a hunger for contrast. Returning to the composition metaphor, you want to create extremely high notes and low notes and you want these notes to present themselves, high and low, in a clear pattern.

Secondly, within the human nervous system there are very specific moments of high sensitivity to learning and there are moments where you can beat your head to the wall for hours and hours and nothing comes out of it. So it’s really important to time these things, to take advantage of these sensitive periods in the day.

The last principle you have to keep in mind is the importance of the pattern. If you are playing a piece of music and you miss a note, you can’t go back to play it. Because for the audience, you having missed the note is far less of an imposition on their following of the music than you stopping to go back to play the note and continuing. The reason for that is; it’s not the note that matters, it’s the patterns that matters. One of the key problems with James, and one of the things I helped him with, is letting go if things go wrong. Not returning to a set of instructions that you’ve given yourself previously that you haven’t been able to accomplish over the week. It sounds logical but it is counter intuitive, because, I think we often see the boring heavy work tasks as rocks that we are bringing to a larger pile of rocks. If we miss a day of work, we decide to load ourselves up with twice as many rocks the next day. The truth is, our nervous system is not a pile of rocks, and too many days doubling up will break your back. If you want to improve and change more sustainably, it’s actually a lot better to treat it more like a piece of music.

And, did it work? Did James’ performance improve?

In the beginning I had great doubts as to whether this was the correct approach. I had these misgivings so intently that I could not of course in all good conscience as a self-respecting scientist trust James just to tell me if it worked or not. So while we were undertaking this project, we measured a lot of his basic biofeedback. Our heartrate variability is a relatively accurate measurement of the autonomic nervous system. It gives us really interesting indications of what’s going on in his body on all sorts of levels, like his stress levels, exhaustion levels, wellbeing, and so we were able to show pretty convincingly that through this period he was getting better results during the intervention.

How do you look back at your time at University College Utrecht? Has your study influenced your career?

University College Utrecht offers you the most valuable resource that there is, and that’s time. In a space where the opportunities for investigation are really good. You need time to figure out what you are really interested in. Because an academic career can only be driven by curiosity. It can’t be driven by a sense of duty, it just doesn’t work. It’s too hard. An undergraduate degree that allows people to do a bit of moving around is absolutely essential. I found that combining philosophy with neuroscience is one of those engines that creates an incredible amount of opportunity for curiosity. There are so many questions you can ask, based on those two fields.

So, what’s next. Do you already have a follow up research lined up?

I’m planning on publishing my results. The data is just in, so I’ve been shopping around for some more advanced forms of analysis. I’d be curious to see what we get out of the data by using those forms of analysis. I definitely want to continue this type of research; there are huge gains to be made here. It’s open season on this group of people from a scientific standpoint! I should probably finish my PhD first. That should be my main focus right now. Actually, to be honest, what I found out in that PhD is probably more interesting that this, but that’s for another time.

University College Utrecht offers you the most valuable resource that there is, and that’s time. In a space where the opportunities for investigation are really good.

Beorn Nijenhuis and James Oesi at Op1 to talk about their research