Mason Crosby And The Cognitive Roller Coaster Of Kicking In The NFL

Mason Crosby And The Cognitive Roller Coaster Of Kicking In The NFL

“I’ve done this a long time and I’ve never had a game like that. This is uncharted territory.” To be sure, it was one of Mason Crosby’s worse games of his 12-year NFL kicking career, missing four out of five field goals and an extra point. In his last five full seasons, the Green Bay Packers kicker has made an average of 85% of his field goals, so his week 5 game, a 31-23 loss to the Detroit Lions, was more than a statistical anomaly. Missing wide from 42, 41, 38 and 56 yards, Crosby was at a loss to explain his sudden inaccuracy, “Every attempt I felt like I was in rhythm going through it,” said Crosby. “It was one of those days that just wasn’t there. I’ve done this a long time, and I’ve never had a day where it wasn’t there like that.”

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Why Warm-ups Before A Game Wake Up Both The Body And The Brain

Why Warm-ups Before A Game Wake Up Both The Body And The Brain

These pre-game preparations are certainly important for warming up the arms and legs, getting the heart rate up and loosening up muscles. But maybe more importantly, this skill repetition also gets the brain ready for the hundreds of actions it will need to perform soon after.

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The Playmaker's Advantage - Introduction

The Playmaker's Advantage - Introduction

Here is an excerpt from the introduction to our new book, The Playmaker's Advantage, available now online or at your favorite local bookstore.

© 2018 by Leonard Zaichkowsky and Daniel Peterson

How hard could it be? I was an adult, a dad no less, with a reasonable understanding of the game despite never having played soccer. They were a pack of nine-year-olds, veterans of at least two to three seasons of battle on fields with reduced dimensions and shrunken goals. Besides the color of their jerseys and shoes, they were open to nearly any of my suggestions as to our strategy, tactics, drills, and motivations to get the Saturday morning win and the red Gatorade that would follow. 

As a rookie volunteer coach, I researched and debated the best formation, attacking style, and starting lineups. Just feed my plans and knowledge into their curious heads, and we would surely hoist seven-inch-tall plastic trophies at the end of the season. Armed with a clipboard detailing each drill with its allotted time, I blew the whistle to start my first team practice.

An hour and a half later I realized that young brains vary from adult brains on many levels. So many concepts, so many skills, and so many rules were like foreign language lessons to my future superstars. Explaining to one of them that “you were in an offside position when the ball was kicked” only resulted in a blank stare. My coaching advice to another that “we should not all chase the ball” was similar to saying, “Don’t chase the man handing out free ice cream.” 

Putting down my clipboard, I knew the practice had to be redesigned on the fly. I was trying to teach them calculus before they had mastered addition and subtraction. Despite the seemingly logical explanations and directions from me, they kept making the same mistakes. The mental workload was evident in real time on their faces as they struggled to transition from instructions while standing still to decision-making in motion.

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Learning From Ghosts - How AI And Machine Learning Are Changing Sports

Learning From Ghosts - How AI And Machine Learning Are Changing Sports

It was an odd but effective analogy that the Manchester United players heard that day from their manager. “I remember going to see Andrea Bocelli, the opera singer. I had never been to a classical concert in my life. But I am watching this and thinking about the coordination and the teamwork, one starts and one stops, just fantastic. So I spoke to my players about the orchestra - how they are a perfect team.”

Sir Alex Ferguson, who won 38 trophies during his 26 years in charge at Old Trafford, recalled that particular pre-game talk to Anita Elberse, a professor at Harvard Business School, as part of a case study she created about his demanding but successful management style, albeit of a sports team rather than a company.

The symphony metaphor is appropriate for most team-based, invasion-type sports as only the unified efforts of all players creates the desired result, whether it be harmonious music or consistent victories.  "To me, teamwork is the beauty of our sport, where you have five acting as one,” said Mike Krzyzewski, all-time wins leader in college basketball, who sounds much like Phil Jackson, owner of 11 NBA Championship rings, "the strength of the team is each individual member. The strength of each member is the team."

During a game, one player’s movement influences not only his teammates’ proactive adjustments but also the reaction of his opponents. A ball carrier’s cut to the left instead of the right changes the dynamics of both teams. At the end of the game, it’s interesting to know each individual’s analytics, like distance covered, passes completed and shooting percentage, but it is vital to visualize the coordinated movement of the team to truly understand how games are won and lost. The outside defender, small forward or right winger may have had a particularly good or bad day, but their net effect on the ensemble is what matters.

For decades, coaches have relied on game film to recall and explain what happened. Watching the action on video gives a richer, realistic recap of the motion that static statistics can’t provide. More recently, combining film with a numerical analysis offered two important but distinct assessments that still requires coaches to integrate. Today’s attempts to bring together the analog fidelity of film with the digital accuracy of analytics has stalled. Annotating video clips with play data, which allows for easier searches and context specific stats, helps but provides no way to apply advanced tools, like artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning, to the thousands of micro movements and positional changes of players throughout a game.

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How Our Eyes Actually Track A Fastball

How Our Eyes Actually Track A Fastball

There’s no argument that a baseball batter’s ability to track an incoming pitch is critical to hitting performance but it’s the details of how his eyes perform that task that researchers are still figuring out.

While previous studies have confirmed that expert hitters are better than novices at tracking a moving object, we still need to breakdown the process if we want to build better training tools for athletes. A study released this month in PLOS ONE took a big step to understanding this visual perception of athletes.

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Repetition (And A Good Follow-Through) Is The Mother Of Skill

Repetition (And A Good Follow-Through) Is The Mother Of Skill

Coaches preach it endlessly, “Always finish with the correct follow-through.”  In baseball, football, tennis, golf, soccer or any sport requiring a skilled targeting movement, how your throw, swing or kick ends up can determine the ball’s speed and direction.  But how can something you do after contact with an object affect its motion? Once a quarterback lets go of the football, the position of his arm after release seems meaningless.  New research from the University of Cambridge has found the answer; the development of motor memories.

For most sports skills that require an athlete to propel or hit an object at a target, the follow-through has been emphasized to prevent injury.  A baseball pitcher throwing a 90 mph fastball must also decelerate his arm after the release.  Without proper mechanics, the wrist, elbow or shoulder could give in to the massive force applied by the motion.

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Was Mental Fatigue To Blame For Messi's Miss at Copa America?

Was Mental Fatigue To Blame For Messi's Miss at Copa America?

In perhaps a defining moment in his career, Lionel Messi missed his penalty kick at the end of  the 2016 Copa America Final. The soccer world asked how this iconic player, voted to be the best in the world five times, could blast the ball over the goal in such a crucial moment at a major tournament? Certainly, Messi had played in overtime games before and was able to handle the physical toll. However, the mental stress of the moment may have been too much for his world-class skill to take over.

Coaches and players talk about it, complain about it and even blame results on it but it's been difficult to measure mental fatigue. Physical endurance is easily tracked and managed through several physiological metrics. But during a strenuous game in the middle of a long season, how does the mental grind affect technical sports performance? Dr. Samuele Marcora, professor and director of research at the School of Sport and Exercise Sciences at the University of Kent, found a lack of research evidence on how the two are related so he designed an intriguing study that found a direct correlation between cognitive load and decreased physical and technical performance in soccer players.

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Teach Your Brain How To Hit That Curveball

Teach Your Brain How To Hit That Curveball

This is the year. This is the season when you finally learn to hit that curveball. But better yet, you will be able to SEE the curveball right out of the pitcher’s hand and not be fooled. It’s not about the bat or your gloves or even your stance in the batter’s box. It’s about what’s under your helmet. From the split second your eyes pick up the ball’s spin and trajectory, your brain is performing multiple calculations and recognizing the slightest patterns so that you can consciously identify the pitch and then make a swing/no-swing decision.

Most of us have heard the quote from the late, great Ted Williams, the last MLB player to hit .400 for a season, ''I've always said that hitting a baseball is the hardest thing to do in sports. The hardest thing - a round ball, round bat, curves, sliders, knuckleballs, upside down and a ball coming in at 90 miles to 100 miles an hour, it's a pretty lethal thing.”

But in the same NY Times article back in 1982, he also shared a nugget about his concentration level, “'I used to say, 'I got to be quick, this guy's faster than he looks.' I had to hang in there. It's like saying, 'Nothing is going to disturb me as far as my intensity to go into the ball.'”

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Catching Flies And Hitting Fastballs Have A Lot In Common

Catching Flies And Hitting Fastballs Have A Lot In Common

Most baseball coaches and a few parents have learned the futility of instructing a young batter to “keep their eye on the ball.” Studies have shown that it is very difficult, if not impossible, for human eyes to track the trajectory of the pitch all the way across the plate. Even at the slower speeds of Little League pitchers, the shorter distance to the plate forces batters to pick-up early cues of the ball’s flight and speed, then make predictions of where and when it will cross the plate.  With less than a half second to to make the swing/no-swing decision, if the muscle activity isn’t triggered early in the pitch, the bat just won’t get around in time.

This time lag between incoming visual stimuli, motion planning in the brain and activation of the muscles, known as sensorimotor delay, is common throughout sports.  Think about a goalkeeper moving to stop a hockey puck or soccer ball; a tennis player returning a blistering serve; or a receiver adjusting to the flight of a football.  Their eyes tell them the speed and path of the object they need to intercept, then their brain instructs the body to move in the predicted path to arrive just in time.

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How Peyton Manning Rebuilt His QB Brain

How Peyton Manning Rebuilt His QB Brain

Back in 2013, before his recent retirement, before his second Super Bowl win, Peyton Manning wasn’t sure if he would ever play football again.  After surgeons removed the bulging cervical intervertebral disc in his neck, the pain was gone but then the rehab learning process was just beginning.  

Damage to the surrounding nerves along with new metal hardware now holding together the vertebrae above and below the injured area caused a communications disruption between Manning’s brain and that well-trained right arm.  The result was a future Hall of Fame quarterback having to relearn how to throw a football.

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Why Young Athletes Should Play Super Mario 3D Instead Of Angry Birds

Why Young Athletes Should Play Super Mario 3D Instead Of Angry Birds

While there is nothing wrong with playing outside, the claim that video games have no redeeming value is starting to be refuted by science. The latest example is a study by researchers at the University of California-Irvine that found that playing 3D video games actually improved memories in college students.

While a number of brain training software apps have popped up over the last few years, they don’t yet have a substantial base of research showing that their games directly transfer to real life improvements. Most of these apps try to isolate specific cognitive skills, like memory, attention, decision-making or reaction time, within their games to train just one skill at a time.

However, the action-oriented, 3D first-person view of games like Call of Duty, Super Mario 3D World and Halo require the user to become fully immersed in the environment, mimicking the real world that users go back to after playing.

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Why 10,000 Hours Of Practice Isn't The Whole Story

Why 10,000 Hours Of Practice Isn't The Whole Story

Practice, practice, practice! That’s been the advice to young athletes for years but especially in the last decade as the road to 10,000 hours of deliberate practice became the accepted timeline to sports mastery. 

Yet many research papers and anecdotal stories point out the many exceptions on both sides of the equation; kids with amazing skills at a young age, overnight teen sensations who just started playing a sport and twenty-somethings who are still trying to make it to the big time despite 10,000+ hours of practice.

If we could just peer into the brains of these budding superstars to see what’s going on when they learn… oh wait, we can!  With the help of functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), neuroscience researchers at the Montreal Neurological Institute and Hospital (aka “The Neuro), part of McGill University, recently watched the changes in young adults’ brains after they learned a new task. But they also noticed that a different area of the brain could predict how well each of the students would perform when learning something new.

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Reduced School Recess Time Actually Hurts Young Brains (And Math Scores)

Reduced School Recess Time Actually Hurts Young Brains (And Math Scores)

In an interesting and frustrating Catch-22, school administrators, in an effort to raise standardized math test scores among their students, often decrease physical education and recess time to keep the kids in the classroom longer. 

However, several recent research studies have shown that students who are more fit perform better in school. So, reducing their opportunities to move and be active so they can spend more time learning math could indirectly be slowing down their learning. In fact, psychology researchers at the University of Illinois have recently shown a relationship between fitness, brain structure and math scores.

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The Psychology Of Words And The Young Athlete

The Psychology Of Words And The Young Athlete

Young athletes live in a pretty strange world. So many adults saying things to them but no one really communicating. Its hard enough for them to decipher one adult's vague instructions but then have to blend the mixed messages of parents and coaches.  

Ken Taylor, former NFL cornerback for the 1985 Super Bowl Champion Chicago Bears, has been working with young athletes for over 20 years, specifically on making them faster. 

Ken and I have been discussing the cognitive side of training athletes and he agrees that coaches and parents need to better understand how a 8-18 year old brain learns new sport skills.

In this approved excerpt from Ken's terrific book, “You Just Can’t Teach That, Or Can You?", he encourages coaches to be specific with their instructions.  

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Have Patience With Your Young Athlete: The Science Of Delayed Remembering

Have Patience With Your Young Athlete: The Science Of Delayed Remembering

It’s been a few years since I last coached little tykes but I do remember that every practice required creative, devious ways to hold their attention while trying to teach them the finer points of the game, like who’s on their team and the general direction that the ball should travel for us to win.  There would be small glimmers of understanding during a drill only to have them evaporate during a scrimmage. 

Unfortunately, researchers at Ohio State University were not there to educate me on a concept known as “delayed remembering” that allows kids to remember a new topic better several days after it was first learned. Their newly released study details just how this works.

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Learning A New Sport Skill Is Just Trial And Error For Your Brain

Learning A New Sport Skill Is Just Trial And Error For Your Brain

Just about every coach and parent, not to mention most young athletes, have heard the vague but obvious phrase, “practice makes perfect.” Quarterbacks wanting to complete more passes need to throw a lot more balls. Rising basketball players who need to increase their free throw percentage need to shoot hundreds of free throws. 

In most cases, repeating a motor skill over and over in slightly different environments and conditions will improve the success rate. If not, we would all still struggle with tying our shoes or riding a bike.

But what is it about practice that helps our brains figure out the specific task while also generalizing enough to transfer the skill to different scenarios? Kicking a football through the uprights of a goal post is slightly different than kicking a soccer ball into a goal but we didn’t have to completely relearn the kicking task when switching between the two sports. Researchers at McGill University took another step forward in understanding how the trial and error of practice teaches our brain to perform these complex sports skills.

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Did Pete Rose's Competitive Spirit Drive Him To Gamble?

Did Pete Rose's Competitive Spirit Drive Him To Gamble?

For many young baseball fans, Pete Rose is a name that is better known for being a baseball player banned from the game for gambling rather than the all-time leader in hits, not to mention games played, at-bats and singles. 

In 1989, Major League Baseball banned him from the game due to accusations, which Rose later admitted to, of betting on baseball games including on his own team, the Cincinnati Reds, as a player and a manager. While Rose contends that he never bet on the Reds to lose, which would be a conflict of interest, MLB still suspended him indefinitely.

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Choose Your Words Carefully When Motivating Your Young Athletes

Choose Your Words Carefully When Motivating Your Young Athletes

Your kids want you to be proud of them. This need for a parent’s approval can be a powerful or destructive force when it comes to youth sports. When we communicate goals for our budding superstars, the wording we choose can make all the difference.  

New research out of Ithaca College shows the effect parents can have on their kids’ game-time anxiety, which can directly impact their performance and overall enjoyment of the game.

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Just An Hour Per Day Of Play Can Boost Young Brains

Imagine an activity that your kids could do after school every day that would improve their brain’s ability to make better decisions and solve problems.  Online cognitive drills? Special tutors? Actually, researchers at the University of Illinois have found that just an hour of fun, active play not only gets kids in better shape but significantly improves their cognitive functioning.

Plenty of previous studies have shown the link between fitness and better academic performance in the classroom but it wasn’t clear if this was a cause and effect relationship or just that smarter kids stayed in shape.  So, Charles Hillman Ph.D., kinesiology and community health professor at the University of Illinois, designed an ambitious project to test 221 students, aged 9 and 10, before and after a nine-month after school exercise program.

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Training Your Eyes To Hit That Curveball

Training Your Eyes To Hit That Curveball

“Just keep your eye on the ball.”  Seems like simple enough advice for a young slugger at the plate.  That may work in the early years of Little League baseball when the pitches they see  have not yet cracked 50 mph. 

But as the fastballs get faster and the change-ups get slower, having quick eyes and an even quicker perceptual brain is the only way hitters will be able to “hit it square” with a round bat and a round ball.  

Which is exactly why psychology researchers at the University of California - Riverside (UCR) teamed up with the college’s varsity baseball players; to see if advanced visual perception training could help their at-bat performance.  While previous vision training research had focused on strengthening a player’s specific eye muscles, the results never transferred well to the batter’s box.  UCR professors

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