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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The Subliminal Power Of Positive Cheering

Young athletes often hear phrases of encouragement like, “dig a little deeper” or “you have to want it more than they do” or, ideally, “be mentally tough.”  For most kids, these words from a coach, a parent or a teammate go in one ear and out the other. 

But, what if there was actually some scientific substance to the words?  Could the smiling, confident face of a coach delivering a pep talk actually have a subliminal effect on performance?  While the conscious brain may dismiss this positive talk, the subconscious mind may actually be putting it to work, according to new research from sports scientists at the University of Kent in England.

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Sleep - The Next Best Thing To Practice

As usual, Mom was right.  Her advice to get to bed early is being confirmed by human performance researchers, sleep specialists and sports medicine doctors. Kids, especially young athletes, need more sleep.  

While common sense tells us that a lack of shut-eye will cause children to be grumpy from a lack of energy, new knowledge about the brain details how sleep affects not only their physiological functions but also their ability to learn new skills.

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For Aaron Rodgers, Practice Makes Perfect Motor Skills

During a Green Bay Packers win over the Atlanta Falcons earlier this season, Peter King, the NFL's dean of sportswriters, found a new level of respect for quarterback Aaron Rodgers.  Here's how King  described one particular third and two play late in the first quarter:

"At the snap, Rodgers’ first look, a long one, was to the left for Nelson. Well covered. Quickly Rodgers turned to the right, to where Cobb was planting his foot in the ground three or four yards upfield and preparing to run a simple in-cut; at the same time, his cover man, cornerback Desmond Trufant, was going to have get through traffic to get to the ball if Rodgers was going to make the throw to Cobb."

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How Video Games Can Improve Your Kids' Hand-Eye Coordination

Well, there goes that golden piece of parental logic.  For years, we’ve been arguing, imploring and threatening our kids to get off their Xbox, PS4 or even Wiis (are those still around?) and get outside for some fresh air and reality.  It isn’t healthy, we argued, to sit in front of that TV and play video games for hours.  While we still have the cardiovascular argument in our corner, new research just confirmed that gaming actually improves our kids’ ability to learn new sensorimotor skills.

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