Euro 2012: A New Way To Track Team Performance

Cristiano Ronaldo
Imagine if the new Adidas soccer ball that will be used in this month’s Euro 2012 tournament had a memory chip in it that could retrace its entire path through each of the scheduled thirty-one games.  Not only its direction and distance traveled, but if it could also log each player’s touch leading up to every shot on goal.

Would the sum of all of those individual path segments tell the story of the game and which players contributed the most to their team’s success?  Northwestern University engineering professor Luís A. Nunes Amaral has not only answered that question, but has now built a side business to enlighten coaches and fans.

While most sports have an abundance of statistical metrics to measure a player’s development, soccer’s fluid gameplay and low scores make it more difficult to evaluate a specific player’s impact and contribution.  To fill the void, several game analysis service firms now offer data on each action of every player during a game, but it’s left to the consumers of this data (coaches, players and fans) to interpret what combination of stats best explains if the team is improving beyond the ultimate metric of wins and losses.

Amaral, a lifelong player and fan from Portugal, saw an opportunity to help.  “In soccer there are relatively few big things that can be counted,” he said. “You can count how many goals someone scores, but if a player scores two goals in a match, that’s amazing. You can really only divide two or three goals or two or three assists among, potentially, eleven players. Most of the players will have nothing to quantify their performance at the end of the match.”

In his lab at Northwestern, Amaral and his team of researchers study complex systems and networks; everything from metabolic ecosystems, the Internet, neural networks in our brain and the propagation of HIV infection.  To him, the game of soccer is no different.

“You can define a network in which the elements of the network are your players,” he commented. “Then you have connections between the players if they make passes from one to another. Also, because their goal is to score, you can include another element in this network, which is the goal.”
They dug into the stats of the previous European championship, Euro 2008, and mapped the ball movement and player statistics for each game into a computer model.  They made the assumption that the basic strategy of every soccer team is to move the ball towards their opponent’s goal.

“We looked at the way in which the ball can travel and finish on a shot,” said Amaral, who also is a member of the Northwestern Institute on Complex Systems (NICO) and an Early Career Scientist with the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.  ”The more ways a team has for a ball to travel and finish on a shot, the better that team is. And, the more times the ball goes through a given player to finish in a shot, the better that player performed.”

By combining a player’s passing efficiency (number of successful passes divided by total passes) and the ball flow around the field, the model can draw a network diagram of the paths that most often led to a shot on goal.  These well-worn paths begin to tell a story of which players are the most reliable and effective.  Amaral has given a very sports-bar worthy name to this ability – flow centrality.  The more often that a player is involved in the build-up of passes towards a shot, the more vital he or she is to the team’s success.

The research was published in the online science journal, PLoS ONE.

Since the study came out almost two years ago, Amaral has set-up a new company, Chimu Solutions, to not only offer soccer analysis but also to expand their algorithms and software to other lines of business to reveal “intricate team dynamics as well as individual metrics with the goal of differentiating role players from superstars.”

While goal scorers and goalkeepers most often get their names in the headlines, it’s often the supporting cast of players that determine the outcome of games.  Understanding how the ball should be and how it is moving up and down the field is critical to player development and game tactics.  One of the most difficult skills for free-flowing sports like hockey and soccer is the visual awareness of teammates’ locations and quick decisions to make progress towards the goal.  Flow centrality may just be the answer.

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Euro 2012: Cognitive Research Links Brain Function To Soccer Success

During the upcoming Euro 2012 tournament, you will often hear coaches and commentators refer to an athlete’s ability to “see the field” or be a play-maker.  Rookies at the next level can’t wait for the game to “slow down” so their brains can process all of the moving pieces.

What exactly is this so-called game intelligence and court vision?  Can it be recognized and developed in younger players?  For the first time, neuroscientists at Sweden’s Karolinska Institutet have found a link between our brain’s “executive functions” and sports success.

When in the middle of a heated game on the field or court, our brains are accomplishing the ultimate in multitasking.  Moving, anticipating, strategizing, reacting and performing requires an enormous amount of brain activity and the athletes who can process information faster often win.
In the everyday world, these types of activities, including planning, problem solving, verbal reasoning, and monitoring of our actions, have been called “executive functions.”  They are called into action when we face non-standard situations or problems where our automatic brain responses won’t work.  Neuroimaging studies have shown this activity happens in the prefrontal cortex of our brains. In ever-changing game situations, those abilities are often used and players need to adapt and be creative on short notice.

“Our brains have specific systems that process information in just this manner, and we have validated methods within cognitive research to measure how well the executive functions work in an individual,” says Dr Predrag Petrovic, the lead researcher in the study.

One of these standardized methods is the Delis-Kaplan executive functions system (D-KEFS) that consists of a series of tests of both verbal and non-verbal skills.  Petrovic and his team gave several of these tests to 57 elite soccer players from Sweden’s highest professional league, Allsvenskan, and the league just below known as Division 1.  After comparing the results, they found that the elite players performed significantly higher than a control group of non-players and the Allsvenskan players also outperformed the Division 1 players.

As in any sport, it’s the on-field performance that matters.  So, the researchers followed the professional players for two seasons and gathered statistics on goals and assists for each player.  There was a clear correlation between higher executive function test results and the ability to create goals.
Their study has been published in the online science journal PLoSONE.

Previous research had used sport-specific tests to measure individual abilities such as focus and attention.  Petrovic’s work was the first to link general problem solving ability with elite performance.

“We can imagine a situation in which cognitive tests of this type become a tool to develop new, successful soccer players. We need to study whether it is also possible to improve the executive functions through training, such that the improvement is expressed on the field. But there is probably a hereditary component, and a component that can be developed by training,” says Torbjörn Vestberg, psychologist and a member of the research group that carried out the study.

As Vestberg points out, this is exciting news for coaches and parents who can now link improvement in general problem-solving skills with their players’ sports performance.  Here at Axon, we are excited to be developing sport-specific cognitive training tools based on these foundational discoveries to help gain the edge over the competition.

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You Can't Hit What You Can't See

Warren Spahn
Hall of Fame pitcher Warren Spahn never studied biomechanics or captured 3D motion capture of the batters he faced, but he knew a lot about the science of strikeouts.  “Hitting is timing.  Pitching is upsetting timing,” Spahn stated decades ago. “”A pitcher needs two pitches, one they’re looking for and one to cross them up.” After all of these years, ASMI biomechanist Dave Fortenbaugh has put this theory to the test in his lab.

With less than a second to see the pitch, identify its speed and location then execute an intercepting swing of the bat, a baseball player’s margin of error can be milliseconds or millimeters.  Since most of the bat speed and power of the swing comes from the weight transfer and rotational speed of the hitter’s body, it is critical that the entire process starts at just the right time so that bat connects with the ball in the perfect horizontal and vertical planes.
Fortenbaugh, whose Ph.D. dissertation was titled “The Biomechanics of the Baseball Swing, set out to see what physically changed about a hitter’s swing when he faced pitches of different speeds.  In new research published in Sports Biomechanics, he and his team gathered 29 professional baseball players (minor league AA) to observe and record the physics of their swings.

Their focus was on a key force for any human movement known as the ground reaction force or GRF.  When you stand still, your feet create a force on the ground equal to your weight.  At the same time, following Newton’s Third Law of Motion, the ground creates an equal and opposite force on your feet, aka the GRF.  When moving, a person’s feet create not only a GRF in the vertical direction but also one horizontally.

Hitting coaches use this force to stabilize a batter’s feet while their weight is shifting from the back foot to the front foot, or from the right foot to the left foot for a right-handed batter.  Fortenbaugh hypothesized that when batters get fooled by a change in pitch speed, the timing of their step and weight shift gets thrown off causing the bat to come through at the wrong time.

For the experiment, the players were asked to face either fastballs or changeups thrown by a live pitcher.  They placed each of their feet on a force plate which measured the level and timing of the force applied as compared to the timing of the ball arriving.

Hitters are often coached to expect every pitch to be a fastball, then adjust if they see something slower.  If they don’t recognize an off-speed pitch soon enough, they will begin their biomechanical process too early, throwing off the eventual swing and contact with the ball.

What the researchers found was that the back foot force stayed roughly the same for either fastballs or changeups.  This would be expected as a player’s weight starts here.
However, for the front foot, the results were significantly different.  As Fortenbaugh concluded, “The batter applied maximum vertical and horizontal braking forces earlier for a successfully hit changeup than a successfully hit fastball, and even earlier for an unsuccessful swing against a changeup. This may be an indication that the batter is fooled a little when successfully recognizing a changeup in adequate time and fooled quite a bit more on unsuccessful swings when this recognition occurs too late.”

Because they weren’t able to identify the slower changeup earlier, they started their swing motion too soon.  For every hitter, specialized visual and cognitive training to recognize pitch types sooner would buy them the valuable milliseconds they need.

The big takeaway from all of this?  “This study provides biomechanical evidence that an effective off-speed pitch, as postulated, upsets a hitter’s timing,” states Fortenbaugh. “The data in this study also support the claim of the difficulty of hitting a baseball well, as literally just tiny fractions of a second separated the successful and unsuccessful swings.”
In other words, Spahn was right.

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NBA Fans Hurt Their Home Team's Free Throws

Manu Ginobli, San Antonio Spurs
Ask any NBA player or coach where they would prefer to play a high stakes game, home or away, and the vast majority will choose being in the friendly confines of their home arena.  Overall, the win-loss records of most teams would support that, but they would do even better if they taught their home fans a lesson in performance psychology.

When it comes to sports skills, research has shown that we’re better off to just do it rather than consciously thinking about the mechanics of each sub-component of the move.  Waiting for a pitch, standing over a putt or stepping up to the free throw line gives our brains too much opportunity to start breaking down the task.  Add competitive pressure brought on by a close game watched by a loyal home fans and we can easily slip out of the well-practiced mental map, known as automaticity, that usually gets the job done.

But what about elite athletes who are the best in the game?  Surely, they’ve found ways to handle pressure and keep their brains on auto-pilot without getting an online psychology degree?  Actually no, says researchers Matt Goldman and Justin Rao.  In a study presented at the recent Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, they revealed an interesting paradox; playing in front of a home crowd can be both a benefit and a curse for NBA players.

For most of a basketball game, players are in constant motion reacting to their teammates and opponents.  They have very little time for “self-focus” or thinking too much about the dozens of small movements that make up their motor skills, except for one event – the free throw.  After being fouled while taking a shot, the play comes to a halt.  The aggrieved player stands at the free throw line, fifteen feet from the basket, with the other nine players as well as thousands of fans staring at him.

The crowd, thinking they’re doing him a favor, gets eerily quiet.  The pressure builds as he’s allowed to remember the score of the game, how much time is left and the disappointment that he and almost everyone else there will feel if he misses this shot.  To counter this, he starts running through his mental checklist; find a focus point, keep your elbow in, bend your knees, follow-through.  Bringing all of these pieces into his conscious mind will most likely cause him to miss the shot, only adding more pressure if he’s fouled again.

Goldman and Rao compared the stage fright of shooting free throws with another very common basketball skill, offensive rebounding.  Recovering the ball after a missed shot is vital to a team’s chances of winning since it provides another possession opportunity to score.  It’s also a task that is done in the constant motion of the game with the crowd cheering.  There is no time to self-reflect on the skill components of rebounding, it just happens.  If a player does not get a rebound, there is no obvious public shame as the play immediately continues.

So, could playing in front of a home crowd affect one part a player’s game but not another?
Using detailed play by play data from every NBA game from 2005-2010 (six full seasons), including 1.3 million possessions and 300,000 free throw attempts, they first found an expected result that, in general, home team players have a higher overall free throw shooting percentage than the visitors.  However, Goldman and Rao then looked at what happens in clutch situations, which they define, in a detailed mathematical formula, as being late in the game when the score is close.  In those high pressure moments, the home team does significantly worse at the charity stripe than their opponents.  They blame this mostly on the actions of the fans.  To go from constant noise and fast action to perfect quiet and stillness is enough to take even the best basketball players in the world out of their rhythm and into a damaging self-talk state.

At the other end of the court, when visiting players are taking free throws, the crowd, again thinking they’re helping, goes crazy with waving arms, signs and noise.  However, the data showed that the free throw percentages of the visitors in clutch situations remains unchanged from their normal away percentage.  The researchers argue that the distractions actually help the opponents at the line by not allowing them to think about their complicated motor skills.

To show that the pressure doesn’t affect all skills, the stats also showed that the home team’s offensive rebounds got progressively better in clutch situations supporting the theory that positive support can increase effort.  As with free throws, the visiting team’s clutch performance in rebounding was unchanged from normal game situations.

Not all players are created equal.  The study called out a few NBA players as being either clutch at the free throw line or chokers under pressure, including two of the game’s top stars.  Manu Ginobili of the San Antonio Spurs, who has a career 83% free throw percentage, is the player you most want at the line when the game is close.  On the other hand, Paul Pierce of the Boston Celtcs, with an 80% career percentage, was the second worst free throw shooter in clutch situations.

Maybe a few brave Celtic fans at the Garden can begin to reverse the trend and go crazy when Pierce is at the line.  Just be sure to be near an exit.

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Daniel Wolpert On Why You Have A Brain

Daniel Wolpert is absolutely certain about one thing.  “We have a brain for one reason and one reason only, and that’s to produce adaptable and complex movements,” stated Wolpert, Director of the Computational and Biological Learning Lab at the University of Cambridge.  “Movement is the only way you have of affecting the world around you.”  After that assertive opening to his 2011 TED Talk, he reported that, despite this important purpose, we have a long way to go in understanding of how exactly the brain controls our movements.

Daniel Wolpert
Daniel Wolpert
The evidence for this is in how well we’ve learned to mimic our movements using computers and robots.  For example, take the game of chess.  Since the late 1990s, computer software has been playing competitive matches and beating human master players by using programmed tactics and sheer computing power to analyze possible moves.  However, Wolpert points out that a five-year-old child can outperform the best robot in actually moving chess pieces around the board.

From a sports context, think of a baseball batter at the plate trying to hit a fastball.  It seems intuitive to watch the ball, time the start of the swing, position the bat at the right height to intercept the ball and send it deep.  So, why is hitting a baseball one of the most difficult tasks in sports?  Why can’t we perform more consistently?

The problem is noise.  Not noise as in the sense of sound but rather the variability of incoming sensory feedback, in other words, what your eyes and ears are telling you.  In baseball, the location and speed of the pitch are never exactly the same, so the brain needs a method to adapt to this uncertainty.  To do this, we need to make inferences or beliefs about the world.

The secret to this calculation, says Wolpert, is Bayesian decision theory, a gift of 18th century English mathematician and minister, Thomas Bayes.  In this framework, a belief is measured between 0, no confidence in the belief at all, and 1, complete trust in the belief.  Two sources of information are compared to find the probability of one result given another.  In the science of movement, these two sources are data, in the form of sensory input, and knowledge, in the form of prior memories learned from your experiences.
Thomas Bayes

So, our brain is constantly doing Bayesian calculations to compute the probability that the pitch that our eyes tell us is a fastball is actually a fastball based on our prior knowledge.  Every hitter knows when this calculation goes wrong when our prior knowledge tells our brain so convincingly that the next pitch will be a fastball, it overrules the real-time sensory input that this is actually a nasty curve ball.  The result is either a frozen set of muscles that get no instructions from a confused brain or a swing that is way too early.

Our actions and movements become a never-ending cycle of predictions.  Based on the visual stimuli of the approaching baseball, we send a command to our muscles to swing at the pitch at a certain time.  We receive instant feedback from our eyes, ears and hands about our success or failure in hitting the ball, then log that experience in our memory.

Wolpert calls this process our “neural simulator” which constantly and subconsciously makes predictions of how our movements will influence our surroundings. “The fundamental idea is you want to plan your movements so as to minimize the negative consequence of the noise,” he explained.

We can get a sense of what its like to break this action-feedback loop.  Imagine a pitcher aiming at the catcher’s mitt, releasing the ball but then never being able to see where the pitch ended up.  The brain would not be able to store that action as a success or failure and the Bayesian algorithm for future predictions would be incomplete.

Try this experiment with a friend.  Pick up a heavy object, like a large book, and hold it underneath with your left hand.  If you now use your right hand to lift the book off of your left hand, you’ll notice that your left hand stays steady.  However, if your friend lifts the book off of your hand, your brain will not be able to predict exactly when that will happen.  Your left hand will rise up just a little after the book is gone, until your brain realizes it no longer needs to compensate for the book’s weight.  When your own movement removed the book, your brain was able to cancel out that action and predict with certainty when to adjust your left hand’s support.

“As we go around, we learn about statistics of the world and lay that down,” said Wolpert.  “But we also learn about how noisy our own sensory apparatus is and then combine those in a real Bayesian way.”

Our movements, especially in sports, are very complex and the brain to body communication pathways are still being discovered.  We’ll rely on self-proclaimed “movement chauvinists” like Daniel Wolpert to continue to map those routes.  In the meantime, you can still brag about the pure genius of your five-year-old hitting a baseball.

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Michel Bruyninckx Trains Soccer Brains

Michel Bruyninckx
When describing what’s wrong with today’s youth soccer coaching, Michel Bruyninckx points to his head. “We need to stop thinking football is only a matter of the body,” the 59-year old Belgian Uefa A license coach and Standard Liège academy director recently told the BBC. “Skillfulness will only grow if we better understand the mental part of developing a player. Cognitive readiness, improved perception, better mastering of time and space in combination with perfect motor functioning.”

We’re not talking about dribbling around orange cones here.  Bruyninckx’s approach, which he dubs “brain centered learning” borrows heavily from the constructivist theory of education that involves a total immersion of the student in the learning activity.

In fact, there are three components to the related concept of “brain based” teaching:
  • Orchestra immersion – the idea that the student must be thrown into the pool of the learning experience so that they are fully immersed in the experience.
  • Relaxed alertness – a way of providing a challenging environment for the student but not have them stressed out by the chance of error.
  • Active processing – the means by which a student can constantly process information in different ways so that it is ingrained in his neural pathways, allowing them to consolidate and internalize the new material.
This “training from the neck up” approach is certainly different than the traditional emphasis on technical skills and physical fitness.  The brain seems to be the last frontier for sports training and others are starting to take note of it.

“I think that coaches either forget, or don’t even realise, that football is a hugely cognitive sport,” said the Uefa-A licence coach Kevin McGreskin in a recent Sports Illustrated story. “We’ve got to develop the players’ brains as well as their bodies but it’s much easier to see and measure the differences we make to a player’s physiology than we can with their cognitive attributes.”

At the Standard Liège facility outside of Brussels, Bruyninckx currently coaches about 68 players between the age of 12 and 19, who have been linked with first and second division Belgian clubs.  If there was any question if his methods are effective, about 25% of the 100 or so players that he has coached have turned pro.  By comparison, according to the Professional Footballers’ Association, of the 600 boys joining pro clubs at age 16, 500 are out of the game by age 21.

His training tactics try to force the players’ brains to constantly multitask so that in-game decision making can keep up with the pace of the game.  ”You have to present new activities that players are not used to doing. If you repeat exercises too much the brain thinks it knows the answers,” Bruyninckx added. “By constantly challenging the brain and making use of its plasticity you discover a world that you thought was never available. Once the brain picks up the challenge you create new connections and gives remarkable results.”

The geometry of the game is stressed through most training exercises.  Soccer is a game of constantly changing angles which need to be instantly analyzed and used before the opportunity closes.  Finding these angles has to be a reaction from hours of practice since there is no time to search during a game.

“Football is an angular game and needs training of perception — both peripheral sight and split vision,” said Bruyninckx. “Straight, vertical playing increases the danger of losing the ball. If a team continuously plays the balls at angles at a very high speed it will be quite impossible to recover the ball. The team rhythm will be so high that your opponent will never get into the match.”

Certainly, brain-centered learning faces enormous inertia among the coaching establishment.  Still, for those teams looking for the extra edge, the Bruyninckx method is gaining fans. “Michel’s methods and philosophy touch on the last frontier of developing world-class individuals on and off the field – the brain,” respected tennis coach Pete McCraw stated. “His methods transcend current learning frameworks and challenge traditional beliefs of athlete development in team sports.  It is pioneering work, better still it has broad applications across many sporting disciplines.”

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"Quiet Eye" Can Help A Surgeon's Patients And Golf Game

Surgeons now have a really good excuse to be out on the golf course.  Researchers have shown that the same training technique that will improve their putting can also improve their operating skills.  Dr Samuel Vine and Dr Mark Wilson, from Sport and Health Sciences at the University of Exeter, tested both elite golfers and surgical residents in two separate experiments using the gaze control technique known as the “Quiet Eye.”

First, they divided 22 elite golfers, (handicaps less than 6), into two groups after their baseline putting performance was measured.  The control group received no additional training while the experimental group participated in Quiet Eye (QE) training, a method first developed by Dr. Joan Vickers of the University of Calgary.  They were instructed to follow these steps:

1. Assume your stance and align the club so your gaze is on the back of the ball.
2. After setting up over the ball, fix your gaze on the hole. Fixations toward the hole should be made no more than 3 times.
3. The final fixation should be a QE on the back of the ball. The onset of the QE should occur before the stroke begins and last for 2 to 3 seconds.
4. No gaze should be directed to the clubhead during the backswing or foreswing.
5. The QE should remain on the green for 200 to 300 ms after the club contacts the ball.

While several earlier studies have shown the effectiveness of using QE in lab-based putting experiments, Vine and Wilson wanted to add two additional tests.  Would the golfers not only putt better in the lab, but also retain that performance under induced stress and in real world, golf course conditions?

The stress was added by telling the golfers that they were playing for a $50 prize as well as having their final scores posted at their home golf courses.  Even though the two groups showed no difference at the pre-training baseline testing, the QE group had significantly better putting scores than the control group in all three scenarios, including a decrease of two putts per round.

So, QE will help a surgeon on the green but what about in the operating room?  Knowing the positive results that athletes have seen, Vine and Wilson wondered if gaze control could help other professions, especially medicine.  Working in collaboration with the University of Hong Kong, the Royal Devon and Exeter NHS Foundation Trust and the Horizon training centre Torbay, the University of Exeter team brought thirty medical students together to find out....
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Is This How Barcelona's Xavi Makes Decisions?

When Xavi Hernandez receives the soccer ball in his offensive half of the field, the Barcelona maestro has a world of decisions waiting for him.  Hold the ball while his teammates arrive, make the quick through pass to a slicing Lionel Messi or move into position for a shot.

The question that decision researchers want to know is whether Xavi’s brain makes a choice based on the desired outcome (wait, pass or shoot) or the action necessary to achieve that goal.  Then, could his attitude towards improvement actually change his decision making ability?

Traditionally, the decision process was seen as consecutive steps; first choose what it is you want then choose an action to get you there.  However, a recent study from the Montreal Neurological Institute and Hospital at McGill University tells us that the brain uses two separate regions for these choices and that they are independent of each other.

“In this study we wanted to understand how the brain uses value information to make decisions between different actions, and between different objects,” said the study’s lead investigator Dr. Lesley Fellows, neurologist and lead researcher. “The surprising and novel finding is that in fact these two mechanisms of choice are independent of one another. There are distinct processes in the brain by which value information guides decisions, depending on whether the choice is between objects or between actions.”

Fellows’ team asked two groups of patients to play games where they chose between either two actions (moving a joystick) or two objects (decks of cards).  Each group had previous damage to different areas of the frontal lobes of their brains.  They could win or lose money based on the success of their choices.

Those that had damage to the orbitofrontal cortex could make correct decisions between different actions but struggled with choices about different objects.  Conversely, the other group, having sustained injury to the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex, had difficulty with action choices but excelled with object choices.

Dr. Fellows hopes this is just the beginning of more neuro-based studies of decision making. “Despite the ubiquity and importance of decision making, we have had, until now, a limited understanding of its basis in the brain,” said Fellows. “Psychologists, economists, and ecologists have studied decision making for decades, but it has only recently become a focus for neuroscientists.”

So, back to Xavi, it seems his decision-making may be a multi-tasking mission by his brain.  Of course, we may never be able to judge the accuracy of any soccer player’s decisions since the actual execution of the motor skills required has an critical effect on the outcome.  In other words, the decision to thread a pass through defenders may be an excellent choice but a number of variables could spoil it, including a mis-kick by Xavi, a sudden last movement by Messi or an alert defender intercepting the pass.

As rare as this may be, Xavi may actually consider his decision a mistake.  How he reacts to that mistake depends on his opinion of neuroplasticity, according to Jason S. Moser, assistant professor of psychology at Michigan State University.  ”One big difference between people who think intelligence is malleable and those who think intelligence is fixed is how they respond to mistakes,” claims Moser.

He hypothesized that those people, including athletes, who think that their intelligence is fixed often don’t make the extra effort required to learn from their mistakes as they think its futile.  However, if you believe your brain continues to evolve and change over your lifetime, then you will bounce back sooner from a mistake and work harder to improve.

To prove this, his team gave volunteers a memory task to remember the middle letter of a five letter sequence, like “MMMMM” or “NNMNN.”  The participants also wore an EEG skull cap that measured brain signals.  After we make a mistake, our brain sends two signals within a quarter second of each other; the first alerts us that we made a mistake while the second signal that indicates we’re aware of the mistake and are working on a solution.

For those in the test group that thought their brains could be improved, they not only did better on successive tests but the second signal from their brain was significantly bigger, indicating their brains were working harder to correct the mistake.  If Xavi feels he can only get better, he will process any mistake at a fundamentally different neuro level than other players.  ”This might help us understand why exactly the two types of individuals show different behaviors after mistakes,” concluded Moser.

Facing a player like Xavi who not only multitasks decisions but also believes he can learn from any mistakes must be a depressing thought for Barcelona’s opponents.

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Aaron Rodgers, Working Memory and 10,000 Hours Of Practice

Aaron Rodgers Assuming the Packers’ quarterback does not have super-human vision or a time machine, these comments must refer to his ability to recognize opposing defensive formations, adjust quickly to their movements and pick out an open receiver.  It is a skill that all young players would like to have and their coaches would like to teach.
Of course, the ongoing debate in the sports world is if great perceptual awareness and quick decision making are gifts you’re born with or ones you can develop with practice.  The extreme ends of that continuum seem illogical, that a player can excel with no practice or that anyone who practices enough can be a superstar.  Instead, the discussion has turned to the gray area in between looking for the right combination and the direction of causation between the two.
At the center of the debate for the last 20 years, Florida State psychology professor K. Anders Ericsson has held to a theory that enough deliberate practice, described as a focused activity meant to improve a specific skill, can make up for or even circumvent the lack of general, innate abilities.  His research has shown that about 10,000 hours of practice is the minimum required to rise to an expert level of most knowledge domains, including sports.
Now, in a new study published in Current Directions of Psychological Science, psychologists David Z. Hambrick of Michigan State University and Elizabeth J. Meinz of Southern Illinois University Edwardsville examined this interplay between basic abilities, like working memory capacity, and acquired knowledge learned through practice.  “We have been especially interested in the question of whether various forms of domain knowledge moderate the impact of basic cognitive abilities on performance,” the authors wrote.
Working memory is used in complex tasks that require holding information in the mind while also trying to reason or comprehend the environment.  Think of Rodgers remembering the pass routes of all of his receivers while processing the movements of eleven defenders around him.
Hambrick and Meinz wanted to find out if the working memory of domain experts, like Rodgers, has as much as an impact on their performance as their years of deliberate practice and learned knowledge of their specialized world.  Previous research has shown that a person’s working memory capacity is strongly correlated with abstract reasoning, problem solving, decision making, language comprehension, and complex learning.

After a great Aaron Rodgers performance, you will usually hear at least one of two phrases uttered by post-game football analysts, “he has a great ability to see the field,” or “the game has really slowed down for him.”

Back in 2002, Professor Hambrick tested this relationship using a baseball domain.  Participants were first tested on their overall baseball acumen and then completed a complex-scan task to test their working memory capacity.  Complex-scan tests combine information storing with information processing.  An example would be reading a series of sentences aloud while also remembering the last word of each sentence.
After the baseline tests, the volunteers listened to radio broadcasts of baseball games and were asked to remember the major events of the game and specific information about the players.  As expected, those who had a higher baseball IQ did better on the recall test.  However, working memory capacity also had a strong correlation with success. As Hambrick concluded, “Working-memory capacity was as important as a predictor of memory performance at high levels of domain knowledge as it was at low levels.”
In the current study, the domain shifted to piano playing while the results were similar.  Fifty-seven pianists with a wide range of lifetime deliberate practice hours, from 260 to over 31,000, were first given a complex-scan test to measure their working memory limits.  Then, they were given a musical piece that they had never seen before and asked to play it with no practice, called sight-reading.
As the authors reported, “Not surprisingly, we found that deliberate practice was a powerful predictor of sight-reading performance. In fact, it accounted for nearly 50% of the variance. However, we also found that working-memory capacity was a positive predictor of performance above and beyond deliberate practice.”
So, at least in the case of working memory, an ingrained ability does have some importance alongside the hours of practice.  Moreover, deliberate practice that also increases your working memory capacity should yield even better results.  Focused training on improving both the storage and processing of information seems to be the key to better performance.
Of course, for most football analysts, saying a quarterback can now “see the field better” is a little easier than saying “activation of domain knowledge by the familiar context did not reduce the effect of working memory capacity on performance.”

Apolo Ohno Trains His Legs And His Mind For The NYC Marathon

Apolo OhnoOf the roughly 45,000 brave souls who will line up for the start of the New York City Marathon in less than two weeks, there’s a good chance that at least a few will have doubts of crossing the finish line.  They have put in the training miles, eaten the right foods and picked out their playlist.

Yet, the biggest obstacle to a finisher’s medal is not their legs, but their brain.  Like an overprotective mother, the brain not only runs the show but also decides when enough is enough.  However, exercise science researchers now believe that it is possible to fool mother nature and tap into a reserve store of energy for better performance.

Somewhere in the New York masses on November 6th will be a short but determined first time marathoner who happens to have eight Olympic medals.  Apolo Ohno, world champion speed skater, will be racing not only in an upright position but for a little longer than his usual 1500 meters.  During his training, he has noticed the difference between the short thirty second repetitions on the ice and the long runs required for marathon endurance.

In a recent interview, he commented that after a 20 mile training run, “I was like a zombie. I couldn’t function. It was crazy.  I was like, ‘What is wrong with me?’”  One thing that all of his Olympic training has taught him is the power of the mind.  Last week, he tweeted, “The MIND is the most undertrained asset of any athlete. It is the biggest difference between separating those who r GREAT or inconsistent.”

Matt Fitzgerald, long-time running columnist and author, agrees with Ohno.  In his 2007 book Brain Training for Runners, he detailed the role of the brain in controlling our physical endurance.  Traditionally, fatigue used to be considered a breakdown of biochemical balances with the build-up of lactic acid or depletion of glycogen for fuel.  However, research in the 1980s showed that this breakdown did not always occur and that athletes were still able to push through at the end of a race even though they should have been physically exhausted.

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The Next Madden Game Frontier?

(Graphic courtesy of Oregon State University)
For all of you Madden 12 junkies out there, I've got a new post over at Axon Potential on some current artificial intelligence research being done at Oregon State University.  They are attempting to teach a computer system to watch an OSU football game and be able to identify, categorize and then suggest plays in a football simulation.

Certainly a tall order, even for some humans, but they've had some initial success with a small playbook of twenty passing plays.

According to the lead researcher, “This is one of the first attempts to put several systems together and let a computer see something in the visual world, study it and then learn how to control it,” said Alan Fern, an associate professor of computer science at OSU. “Football actually makes a pretty good test bed, because it’s much more complicated than you might think both visually and strategically, but also takes place in a structured setting. This makes it quite analogous to other potential applications.”

It seems the developers at EA Sports may have a head start on play selection AI, based on my poor record against the Madden gods.

Thanks for making the jump to Axon Potential to read the rest of the story.

College Football Scandals Stress Need For Coaching Character

Jim Tressel
Former Ohio State head football coach Jim Tressel seemed to be a role model for achieving on-field success with a high level of character.  Two-time National Coach of the Year, Larry Coker and former player Randy Shannon also were thought to provide moral leadership while winning national championships during their tenure as head coaches for the University of Miami.

Yet, both storied football programs now find themselves in the middle of NCAA investigations for major rule violations.  Reports of players trading memorabilia for cash or discounts, receiving cash and “entertainment” from boosters, and at least one of these coaches admitting to lying about their knowledge of these events has triggered a frenzy of discussion on what’s wrong with college athletics.

As head coaches often claim at their post-scandal press conferences, the buck stops with them as they have overall responsibility for the program and its players.  Being in the hot seat requires a coach that can provide the balance between ultra-competitive, “win now” demands of fans and boosters and long-term development of players’ skills and character. Several recent research initiatives have looked at this unique role and how to walk that fine line

Randy Shannon
Before arriving on a big-time college campus, elite athletes are exposed to multiple coaches.  Certainly, these coaches influence the player’s knowledge and skill level in their sport, but exercise science researchers at Concordia University in Montreal have documented a link between coaches and players in moral and ethical development.

Through interviews with elite coaches and athletes, Sandra Peláez and Simon Bacon found that after parents, coaches can become significant influences in moral guidance for athletes.

"Coaches are mentors, parent figures, career enablers, and judges -- all at the same time," lead author Peláez said. "Every coach, however, doesn't influence every athlete he or she works with. The coach-athlete relationship is what enables a coach's influence and therefore determines how much influence a coach has. We found athletes would evaluate the relationship with their coaches and then decide whether to accept moral guidance or not."

Of course, defining what is meant by the term morals is slippery.  For this study, four core moral values were defined. These were "elite sports involvement" (i.e. discipline), "interaction with others" (i.e. respect), "self-related" (i.e. enjoying the sport) and "game" (i.e. striving to win).

Also found in the study was the importance of cultural differences between coach and player as well as the generational influence of coaches being mentored by their former coaches.

Attitudes towards sports also begins at much younger age and helps set the stage for future behaviors.  A “win at all costs” coaching mentality has been found to be less effective for player development than a mastery method which emphasizes positive communications and learning the sport.

Recently, University of Washington sport psychologists interviewed 243 children -- 145 boys and 98 girls -- playing basketball in two separate Seattle leagues. The athletes ranged in age from 9 to 13 and 80 percent were white. They were given questionnaires to fill out twice, once prior to the beginning of the season and again 12 weeks later when the season was almost over.  Those kids that played for mastery coaches reported having more fun and enjoying the sport.

"One consistent finding of our research is that a mastery climate retains more youngsters in sports. It keeps them coming back," said Ronald Smith, a UW psychology professor and lead author of the study. "Retention is a huge problem in some youth sports programs. An important reason to keep kids involved in sports is that it reduces obesity by helping them be more active."

Like their athletes, elite college head coaches can often reach rock star status, as well.  This can cause problems if the coach cannot adapt to new situations for fear of trying new methods and not having an answer for everything.

"Coaching is complex, continually changing and influenced greatly by the context, athletes' circumstances and the developing relationship between the coach and the athlete,” claims Jim Denison, PhD, of the University of Alberta, and co-author of a new paper on positive coaching and ethical practices for athlete development. “When coaches achieve an expert status they tend to want to maintain that, so admitting that you don't know becomes a threat to their expertise."

So much is riding on a successful NCAA Division 1 program that a head coach may not be able to step back and admit a mistake or a problem with their players.

"It's hard for that person to express uncertainty, or be open to new ways of looking at a problem or consulting with others,” added Denison. "You cannot begin to 'problemetize' until you acknowledge and recognize that the knowledge you have is socially constructed based on a lot of take-for-granted ideas and traditions that have become dominant. We invite coaches to think more critically about how they think and what they do, to 'problemetize' their assumptions and to open their minds to look at their coaching practices critically and with the opportunity to try new things without feeling threatened by change."

Of course, easier said than done.  With so many strong influences on college athletes, head coaches will need to develop strong relationships with their team and even stronger support from their universities and fans in order to provide a championship with character.

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See also: Youth Sports Coaches Should Prioritize Teaching Over Winning and Wait Until After The Season To Fire The Coach

Lazy Person's Guide To Old Age

Stop eating all of that junk food.  Why?  So, you can live longer, of course.  Get off the La-Z-Boy and go run five miles.  Why?!  So, you can enjoy your old age.  No more drinking and smoking.  Why?!!  So, you can live to be 100 years old.

The rationale often given for converting to healthy habits has been to give you a longer life.  Who better to know about long lives than those that are closing in on the big 100.  The U.S. Census Bureau estimates there were nearly 425,000 people aged 95 and older living in the U.S. in 2010 − still only a small percentage of the 40 million U.S. adults 65 and over.

What’s their secret?  Are they non-smoking, teetotaling, vegan marathon runners?  Not exactly, according to researchers at the Institute for Aging Research at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine.
They interviewed 477 Ashkenazi Jews who were 95 and older (95-112, 75 percent of them women), and participating in Einstein's Longevity Genes Project.  The Ashkenazi descendents are more genetically alike, making it easier to control genetic differences.  The group was asked about their living habits back when they were 70 to get an idea of their daily lives that got them this far.  Questions about alcohol and tobacco use, their diet, and how much they exercised helped paint a picture of environmental factors that influenced their health.
Next, Dr. Nir Barzilai and his team compared the test group with 3,164 people with similar birth years who had provided similar data in the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES 1) back in the early 1970s.

Surprisingly, there was little evidence that living to a ripe old age required following all of the recommended rules.  Only 27 percent of the elderly women ate a low-calorie diet in their earlier years, matching an equal percentage of women in the larger population.  In the bigger group, 22 percent of the men drank alcohol daily, but so did 24 percent of the old guys.  It must be exercise, right?  Nope, only 43 percent of the centenarians reported regular moderate workouts compared with 57 percent of their comparison counterparts.

Dr. Barzilai did find one factor difference, obesity.  While the older population was just as likely to be overweight as the others, it was rare that they were obese.  Only 4.5 percent of the males and 9.6 percent of the females were severely overweight, compared to 12.1 percent and 16.2 percent of the large control group, respectively.

So, if its not all of that “nurture”, then it must be nature or genetic differences that account for the 100 birthday candles.

"In previous studies of our centenarians, we've identified gene variants that exert particular physiology effects, such as causing significantly elevated levels of HDL or 'good' cholesterol," said Dr. Barzilai, who is a professor of medicine and of genetics at Einstein. "This study suggests that centenarians may possess additional longevity genes that help to buffer them against the harmful effects of an unhealthy lifestyle."

That’s it, then, we can all go out and party this weekend, since we have no control over which end of the gene pool we were thrown into, right?  As retired football coach and ESPN analyst Lee Corso likes to say, “Not so fast, my friend.”

"Although this study demonstrates that centenarians can be obese, smoke and avoid exercise, those lifestyle habits are not good choices for most of us who do not have a family history of longevity," said Dr. Barzilai. "We should watch our weight, avoid smoking and be sure to exercise, since these activities have been shown to have great health benefits for the general population, including a longer lifespan."

Then again, maybe life after 90 isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be.

Follow Dan Peterson on Twitter

See also: Women Should Use New Formula For Maximum Heart Rate and Exercise Pumps Up Your Brain

Why Are Great Soccer Players So Rare?

An athlete’s level of greatness is often measured by the opinions of his or her peers while they’re playing and especially when they retire.  Being recognized as one of the best by those who understand what it takes is rare.  This week, one of the world’s greatest soccer players of the last 30 years retired, yet he could walk down most streets in America without being recognized.

After 17 seasons, Paul Scholes of Manchester United played in his final tribute game last week and will become a coach at the club he’s been part of since his teens.

While not a household name in the U.S. like Messi or Ronaldo or Beckham, he has earned the respect of the greatest players of his time.

“My toughest opponent? Scholes of Manchester,” said Zinedine Zidane, French World Cup Winner and 3-time world player of the year. “He is the complete midfielder. He’s almost untouchable in what he does.You rarely come across the complete player, but Scholes is as close to it as you can get.”

“In the last 15 to 20 years the best central midfielder that I have seen — the most complete — is Scholes,” said Xavi Hernandez, Barcelona midfield maestro, arguably the best midfielder in the world at the moment.  “Scholes is a spectacular player who has everything. He can play the final pass, he can score, he is strong, he never gets knocked off the ball and he doesn’t give possession away.”

“He’s always one of those people others talk about,” said David Beckham, world soccer icon and a former teammate. “Even when playing at Real Madrid, the players always said to me ‘what’s he like’? They respect him as a footballer and see him as the ultimate.”

So, what makes him different?  What is the secret ingredient that makes a few soccer players better than the thousands that come and go?  Obviously, many clubs would pay huge sums of money to find out.  Recently, two teams of researchers from the University of Queensland tried to narrow down the options.

In 2009, the university’s semi-professional soccer team was tested for their general athletic abilities across sixteen different tasks to get a measure of their inherent talents (speed, agility, strength, etc.)  Then they were paired off in games of “soccer tennis” which is what it sounds like - two players on a tennis court with a soccer ball kicking and heading it back and forth across the net.

Dr. Robbie Wilson and his team wanted to see if differences in basic athletic abilities were correlated with being a more skilled soccer player.  "There was no evidence of any correlations between maximal athletic performance and skill", concludes Dr. Wilson. "Our studies suggest that skill is just as important, if not more important, than athletic ability in determining performance of complex traits, such as performance on the football field".

Alright, so skill is at least as important as raw physical gifts.  Is skill enough?  There are plenty of skilled players who don’t become Paul Scholes.  This year, Dr. Gwendolyn David, also at the University of Queensland, picked up the trail from her mentor, Dr. Wilson.  Her team first tested 27 semi-pro players in individual soccer skills like dribbling speed, volley accuracy, and passing accuracy.

Next they observed these players in actual game situations watching for the “complex tasks” that combine the individual skills into a complete performance.  These included ball-interception, challenging another player for the ball, passing, shooting and blocking the ball.

Judging from the results, it was clear to Dr. David that superior skills do not translate to better game play.  "Athletic skill abilities measured in the lab were not associated with any measure of performance on the pitch. In other words, it's not your ability, it's what you do with it that counts,” writes Dr. David.  She recommends that youth coaches spend more time in actual game conditions rather than just focusing on individual skill development.

Despite these results, we’re still left searching for the secret of Scholes.  It seems to be more than physical abilities and soccer skills.  Others have commented on his uncanny sense of his surroundings.  His one and only manager, Sir Alex Ferguson, may sum it up best, "He has an awareness of what’s happening around him on the edge of the box which is better than most players. As a kid he always had a knack of arriving in the right area just at the right time, but he’s proving just as effective from outside the box because he’s using his experience in the right way. One of the greatest football brains Manchester United has ever had."

Join me on Twitter at Dan Peterson and Axon Potential

See also: Artificial Intelligence Tackles Football Knowledge 
and Kicking Style Of Women Soccer Players May Cause Injury

Helmet Reveals Data About High School Football Player's Broken Neck

Click image to hear Prof. Broglio talk about HITS (courtesy the crowd watching an Illinois high school football game last fall, it was a sickening feeling watching one of their Unity Rockets' cornerbacks collapse to the ground after delivering a heads-down tackle on an opposing running back (see video here.) 

For Steven Broglio, an assistant professor of kinesiology at the University of Michigan, it was a mixed feeling of concern and curiosity as to the extent of the injury.  Since 2007, Broglio has been collecting data on the violent collisions that occur in high school football and their contribution to concussions and other head injuries.

Unity players use helmets with padded sensors called the Head Impact Telemetry System.
Using a sensor similar to what is used in car air bags, the HITS helmets record and transmit the magnitude of each impact and its location on the helmet to a computer located on the sideline within about 10-20 seconds.  Broglio is able to monitor these collisions and alert the coaching staff if an impact exceeds the threshold known to cause concussions, about 90-100 g-force. Listen to Broglio describe the HITS research.

In the last four years, Broglio has recorded over 120,000 football collisions with 25 resulting in a concussion for the player.  However, on this night, he would record data on a much more rare injury - a broken neck.  After briefly losing consciousness on the field, the Unity cornerback was taken to a hospital emergency room and was diagnosed with a concussion and a stable left C6 facet fracture, otherwise known as a broken neck.  Data from the collision showed the hit occurred at the top right side of the helmet at a amazing 114 g-force.  Just for comparison, a shuttle launch is about 3 g-force while a rolling fighter pilot sustains about 5-10 g-force.

Thankfully, the player was released from the hospital 48 hours later with a hard neck collar.  While his football season was over, he returned to play basketball twelve weeks later.

Broglio describes the encounter in a letter to the New England Journal of Medicine.

The goal of the research is to perfect the technology so that similar, less expensive systems can be used on many more football sidelines.  Broglio said a number of other researchers at universities across the nation, including Virginia Tech, the University of North Carolina and Dartmouth, also are using the system as the basis for studies of biomechanical processes caused by concussions and traumatic brain injuries. The current system has a price tag of about $60,000 while the customization to each helmet costs an additional $1,000.  "Ultimately, we're trying to use these measures to predict concussion," Broglio said. "If someone exceeds a certain level then we would know they have a concussion and we could pull them."

With the recent attention to concussions at the NFL level, there is hope that research will also benefit high school and college players. "To us, the larger public health issue is with the 1.5 million high school kids that play football each year. Not the 1,500 that play in the NFL," Broglio said.

Related Articles: New Return-To-Play Guidelines For Sports Concussions and NFL Concussions Taking Bigger Toll On Players

Little Old Ladies May Want Athletes To Help Them Cross The Road

Photo credit: Beckman Institute CAVE
Boy Scouts just got some competition.  Now, when little, old ladies need to cross a busy street, they should find a well-trained athlete to do the job, according to University of Illinois researchers. 

In a test of skill transfer, Laura Chaddock, a researcher at the Beckman Institute’s Human Perception and Performance lab, and her team pushed a bunch of college students out into busy traffic to see how well they could navigate the oncoming cars... well, sort of. 

With the help of a virtual 3D environment called the CAVE, volunteer pedestrians can step into a simulated city street scene, seeing traffic whiz by on three surrounding screens, while walking on a synchronized treadmill.  Failure here does not end up in a trip the hospital, just a system reset.

Of the 36 college student participants, half were student-athletes at Illinois, an NCAA Division 1 school, representing a wide variety of sports, including cross-country running, baseball, swimming, tennis, wrestling, soccer and gymnastics. The other half were just regular students matched for similar age, GPA and video game prowess.  

Chaddock hypothesized that the athletes would have the edge in street crossing given their training in busy, attention-demanding sport environments.  Previous studies have found that athletes outperform non-athletes on sport-specific tests of attention, memory, and speed.  

“We predicted that an elite soccer player, for example, not only shows an ability to multitask and process incoming information quickly on a fast-paced soccer field by running, kicking, attending to the clock, noting the present offensive and defensive formations, executing a play, and finding open players to whom to pass” Chaddock wrote.  “He or she also shows these skills in the context of common real world tasks.”

When the students stepped into the CAVE, they encountered a busy city street with cars and trucks zooming by at 40-50 mph.  They were asked to cross the street when they thought it was safe, but could only walk briskly with no sprinting.  To make it more interesting, (and realistic), the students were also given an iPod to listen to music, then a cell phone with an incoming call to distract their attention even more.

The team was correct in its prediction as the athletes completed more successful crossings than non-athletes by a significant margin.  But it wasn’t because the athletes were faster (they were limited to walking) or because they displayed better agility or moves.  Maybe it was because their advanced “field vision” was able to scan the environment for patterns and opportunities to cross better than the untrained eyes of the other students.

“While efficiency of information processing may be one cognitive mechanism underlying athlete and non-athlete differences in street crossing performance,” Chaddock noted,  “additional research is needed to characterize other cognitive factors that play a role in the cognitively complex multitask paradigm that involves attention, speed, working memory and inhibition.”

One other finding of the study confirmed what is probably already obvious.  Students who were talking on the phone when crossing the street were much more likely to not make it to the other side.

You might also like: How To See A 130 MPH Tennis Serve and Breaking Curveballs And Rising Fastballs Are Optical Illusions

Just Pretend Those Carrots Are Cheese Fries

The problem with your diet is not that you’ve been eating the wrong food, but rather you’ve been thinking about your food all wrong.  According to Alia Crum, a clinical psychology researcher at Yale University, our mind’s opinion of food labeled or thought of to be “diet” or “low fat” can actually affect our body’s physiological response after eating it, which changes our metabolism.  

Her sneaky research team told 46 volunteers that they were getting two milkshakes to drink.  In the first test, they were told they were sampling a “health” shake that had no fat, no added sugar and a skinny 140 calories.  At a separate test, the same group were told they were rewarded with an “indulgent” shake weighing in at a guilt-inducing 620 calories and full of fat.

The trick was that in each test, the milkshakes were actually identical with each having 360 calories.  Only the description and labelling of the shakes were different.

At this point, Crum and her less than honest team could have just asked the volunteers which shake made them “feel fuller.”  Instead, they chose to measure satiety by observing changes in the level of ghrelin, the so-called “hunger hormone” in the stomach that signals the brain when to eat and when to stop eating.  When you’re hungry, your level of ghrelin goes up, telling your brain to find some snacks.  After a meal, your ghrelin goes down trying to convince you not to go back for a third helping.

Blood tests were gathered from the drinkers before, during and after the shakes to measure their ghrelin.  

Results showed that when the participants drank the “health” shake, their ghrelin levels stayed about the same or slightly increased.  However, after drinking the “indulgent” shake, their ghrelin levels dropped significantly.  In other words, their perception of what they were eating tricked their body into responding differently. Same shake, different physiological responses.

The study was published last month in the journal Health Psychology.

So, let’s put this in the real world.  You’re trying to lose weight by eating “healthy” foods, with lower calories and fat.  But, you’ve also been conditioned to think that these foods just don’t satisfy your hunger like a greasy cheeseburger would.  Eating 500 calories of fruits and vegetables doesn’t feel as good as eating 500 calories of french fries.  

"What was most interesting," Crum said, "is that the results were somewhat counter-intuitive. Consuming the shake thinking it was ‘indulgent' was healthier than thinking it was ‘sensible.' It led to a sharper reduction in ghrelin." By drinking the “indulgent” shake, you actually might eat less after that since your lower ghrelin levels would dampen the hunger signal to your brain.

"I think the most important message from this study is for consumers to be aware of the mind-set that they are in while they are eating, and especially the mind-set that individuals seem to automatically adopt when trying to maintain or lose weight," writes Crum.. "The mind-set of 'sensibility' or 'restraint'—no matter what we're eating—might be compromising our body's physiological response, counteracting our hard work at dieting. People should still work to eat healthy, but do so in a mind-set of indulgence."

Tricking the brain is not new to Crum.  In 2007, she assisted psychologist Ellen Langer in a groundbreaking mindfulness study that convinced New York City hotel maids that the daily work they performed was enough to improve their health.  They interviewed 84 maids on their daily exercise habits outside of work.  Most said they barely worked out at all.  

Then, they educated half the group on how their daily work of changing beds, vacuuming, etc. was actually good exercise.  After one month, they reported that the educated group’s blood pressure had dropped by 10% without any additional work or exercise.  Langer and Crum claim the placebo effect had changed the women’s health, just by the perception that they were exercising.  The study had its critics, but it was an interesting finding nonetheless.

So, while a Big Mac is still bad for you, it may actually convince you to eat less that day then trying to fool your brain into thinking your bag of carrots is actually a bag of cheese fries.

You might also like: Exercise Burns Fat During But Not After Your Workout and New Proof That Exercise Pumps Up Your Metabolism

If Your Brain Is Over 40, It Needs To Move

There was a time when I could hide my gray hairs with some strategic combing.  Now, I have succumbed and describe my new hair color as “executive blond.”  Of course, that also means that the important stuff under my scalp is getting older too.  Brains start to “go gray” about the same time the hair does, which is why exercise for older adults has become the new anti-aging fix for our senior cerebellums. Several new studies provide more evidence that a brain in motion tends to remain... young.

The older population (which does not include me yet!), persons 65 years or older, totaled 39.6 million in 2009 (the latest year for which data is available). They represented 12.9% of the U.S. population, about one in every eight Americans. By 2030, there will be about 72.1 million older persons, more than twice their number in 2000. People 65+ represented 12.4% of the population in the year 2000 but are expected to grow to be 19% of the population by 2030.

Over the last several years, dozens of studies have concluded that exercise helps not only your reflection in the mirror but also your cognitive ability.  Just in the last four months, three research projects, one small, one medium and one large, reported their findings of the effects of exercise on the older brain.

First up, a micro study of 16 women, aged 60 and over, hypothesized that a moderate exercise program would increase blood flow to the brain.  Dr. Rong Zhang, a researcher at the Institute for Exercise and Environmental Medicine at Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital Dallas, first measured the blood flow in the women's internal carotid arteries, using Doppler ultrasonography.  Next, a baseline test was taken of their maximal oxygen consumption (VO2 max) to gauge their body’s ability to use oxygen during exercise.

Then the walking started.  Each woman was given a training plan based on their current fitness level that started with three 30-minute sessions per week of walking at a pace of 50-60% of their VO2 maximum.  By the third month, this was increased to four sessions at 70-80% of VO2 max.

A second blood flow test showed a significant increase in cerebral blood flow by an average of 15% in the women’s left carotid artery and 11% in the right artery.  VO2 max also went up by 13%, while their blood pressures and heart rates declined by 4% and 5%, respectively.

Dr. Zhang likes the correlation, "There are many studies that suggest that exercise improves brain function in older adults, but we don't know exactly why the brain improves. Our study indicates it might be tied to an improvement in the supply of blood flow to the brain."

So, what might that extra blood be doing for the brain?  Kirk Erickson, professor of psychology at the University of Pittsburgh, is convinced that exercise actually grows the size of the brain.  He and a cross-university team of scientists recruited 120 dementia-free, sedentary senior citizens to measure their brain size before and after a one year long walking program.  After measuring each volunteers’ hippocampus dimensions using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), they were split into two groups.  One group would start a walking program of 40 minutes per session, three days per week, while the other group simply did a stretching and toning program.

After one year, a second MRI showed that the walkers increased their hippocampus size by an average of 2% while those that only stretched showed a decrease in brain volume of about 1.4%.  Also, a spatial memory test performed pre and post exercise showed a significant improvement for the walkers versus the stretchers.

"We think of the atrophy of the hippocampus in later life as almost inevitable," said Kirk Erickson, professor of psychology at the University of Pittsburgh and the paper's lead author. "But we've shown that even moderate exercise for one year can increase the size of that structure. The brain at that stage remains modifiable."

There is another important benefit to that extra blood flow, preventing strokes or even small brain lesions, or infarcts, often known as silent strokes.  "These 'silent strokes' are more significant than the name implies, because they have been associated with an increased risk of falls and impaired mobility, memory problems and even dementia, as well as stroke," said brain researcher Joshua Z. Willey, MD of Columbia University in New York.

Willey and his team asked 1,238 people over age 60, who had never had a stroke, about the frequency and intensity of their exercise regimen.  About 43 percent of the participants reported that they had no regular exercise; 36 percent did regular light exercise, such as golf, walking, bowling or dancing; and 21 percent performed regular moderate to intense exercise, such as hiking, tennis, swimming, biking, jogging or racquetball.

Six years later, all participants underwent an MRI scan of their brain.  Sixteen percent of the group, 197 volunteers, had suffered from an infarct or silent stroke during the time frame.  However, the moderate to intense exercise group was 40% less likely to have had the small lesions than the group that did not exercise at all.  There was no significant difference between those that did light exercise and those that did no exercise.

"Encouraging older people to take part in moderate to intense exercise may be an important strategy for keeping their brains healthy,” concluded Willey. "Of course, light exercise has many other beneficial effects, and these results should not discourage people from doing light exercise."

So, no excuses anymore.  Throw some hair color on your scalp, then go for that walk.  Your hair will look young and your brain will think young.

See also: Exercise Pumps Up Your Brain and Boomer Brains Need Exercise

Beanball Retaliations Rise With The Temperature

Last week, the Cubs made a rare visit to Fenway Park to face the Red Sox in an Major League Baseball interleague series.  Things got a little nasty when Sox pitcher Alfredo Aceves put a fastball into the face of the Cubs’ Marlon Byrd, causing multiple fractures.  As is “tradition” in baseball, the Red Sox batters knew the score would be settled in the following game.  After just missing Jed Lowrie with an inside pitch in the eighth inning, Cub pitcher Kerry Wood made sure he connected with his target and plunked Lowrie in the behind on the very next pitch.

"After he missed the first one, I figured there's a good chance [I'd get hit]," Lowrie told  "I'm [ticked] off. I just got hit with a 97-mph fastball," he said. "I mean, I understand the situation, but I'm [ticked] off."

This type of diamond justice will only get worse as we get into the hot summer months of the season, according to researchers at Duke University.  Richard Larrick, a management professor at the Fuqua School of Business studied 57,293 Major League Baseball games from 1952 through 2009, including 4.5 million at bats. He looked at the relationship between batters hit by a pitch and the air temperature druing the game.  If a pitcher’s teammate gets plugged, whether it be intentional or not, he is much more likely to retaliate if the temperature is 90F or above.  However, if no one has been hit yet, the heat is not any more likely to cause the first knockdown.

"We found that heat does not lead to more aggression in general," said Larrick. "Instead, heat affects a specific form of aggression. It increases retribution."

They used baseball as a test environment as most other variables can be controlled. "There are decades of research showing heat leads to aggression, like finding more violent crime in the summer," he said. "But in crime statistics, it's hard to really determine if it's heat or other things. One of the nice things about studying baseball is that we're able to control for factors besides heat."

Just boys being boys, right?  That would seem to be the male stereotype according to another “let’s use baseball to test something” study.  A group of researchers led by Kerri Johnson, an assistant professor of communication studies and psychology at UCLA, wanted to see if certain emotions are unfairly connected to gender in our perceptions.  

By using the same type of video motion capture technology used to model athletes in sports video games, they captured the baseball throwing motion of 30 different male and female actors.  They were asked to throw pitches with different emotions, like sadness and anger.  By using the motion capture camera, only the bio-mechanical actions of the actors were captured, not their facial expressions or gender.

Next, Johnson asked 93 college student volunteers to watch these randomly ordered videos of the pitchers and try to identify the emotion and the gender of each thrower.  Thirty percent of the time, they correctly identified a “sad” throw while an “angry” throw was chosen 70 percent correctly.

However, even though each volunteer was shown an equal number of sad and angry throws from each gender pitcher, the sad throws were identified as being female 60 percent of the time while 70 percent of the angry throws were associated with a male pitcher.

"It's OK -- even expected -- for men to express anger," Johnson said. "But when women have a negative emotion, they're expected to express their displeasure with sadness. Similarly, women are allowed to cry, whereas men face all kinds of stigma if they do so. Here, we found that these stereotypes impact very basic judgments of others as well, such as whether a person is a man or woman."

So, we’ll just go with that gender bias and assume that when Kerry Wood was coming inside on Jed Lowrie, it was most likely out of anger, not sadness.

See also: Youth Baseball Pitchers Need To Stay Under 100 Innings Per Year and Virtual Reality Lab Proves How Fly Balls Are Caught

New Study Identifies NBA Players Who Shoot Too Much

To reach the NBA Finals, Russell Westbrook of the Oklahoma City Thunder needs to pass more, especially to his teammate Kevin Durant.  That would be the message that two researchers would send to Thunder coach, Scott Brooks, if given the chance.  Matt Goldman, a graduate student at the University of California, San Diego, and Justin Rao, a research scientist at Yahoo Labs recently named Westbrook as the biggest “chucker” in the NBA because of statistics showing that he shoots much more often than he should, while Durant is classified as an undershooter, whose team would benefit from him taking more chances.

While their statistical theory builds a case for how to achieve optimal efficiency on the court, they don’t explain why elite players make the in-game decisions that they do.  For that matter, what about the high school ball player or the weekend warrior at the gym; how do they make the decision to pass or shoot?  For that, Markus Raab and Joseph Johnson, both sport scientists, have some insights  from their research.

First, let’s do the numbers.  Goldman and Rao dug into the NBA stats archive to analyze over 400,000 team possessions over the last four seasons, 2006-2010, across the entire league.  In a paper and presentation at the recent MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, they presented a model that compares the difficulty of a shot taken in relation to the time remaining on the 24 second shot clock.  Then they compare this with a concept called “allocative efficiency”, or the benefit of equally distributing the ball to any of the five players on the court and also “dynamic efficiency”, or deciding whether to “use” the possession by taking a shot or “continuing” the possession by making a pass.  As the shot clock winds down, the marginal difficulty of a shot considered will need to rise or they risk getting no shot off before the 24 seconds expires, wasting the possession.

They found that most NBA  players are very efficient in their shot selection.  Surprisingly, several elite players are actually not shooting enough, according to their model.  Here is the list of all NBA players analyzed and their score, where a negative number (at the top of the list) represent overshooters.  Joining Westbrook at the top of the list were well-known names like Lamar Odom and Tracy McGrady.  Even bigger names like LeBron James, Ray Allen, Dirk Nowitzki, Chris Paul and Joe Johnson actually show up at the bottom of the list and may hurt their team with their unselfishness.

So, what goes on in these very well-paid athletic brains?  Are the trigger-happy players selfish, over-confident and in need of attention?  Markus Raab, professor at the German Sport University-Cologne, and Joseph Johnson, professor at Miami University of Ohio,  have spent the last ten years studying the decision-making processes of athletes in several different sports, but especially fast-paced games where quick decisions are critical.

Let’s imagine the Thunder point guard, Westbrook, bringing the ball up the floor.  He crosses the half court line and his decision making process kicks in.  The Raab/Johnson process first recognizes that perception of the situation is required before the player can generate all of the different options in his brain.  Just like a quarterback examining and identifying the defensive alignment as he breaks the huddle, the point guard in basketball has to visually process the scene in front of him.  From there, his brain, based on his vast memory of similar basketball experiences, begins to make a list of options.  These can be spatial options, like move the ball left, ahead or right, or functional options like pass or shoot.  

Through research with basketball and team handball players, the researchers found that the most effective strategy is to “take the first” option that the player conceives as that is most often the “correct” choice when analyzed later by experts.  Much like going with your first answer on a test, the more that you deliberate over other choices, the greater the chances that you’ll pick the wrong one.  

However, each player will have their own library of choices stored in their memory and this magical sorting of best options can be influenced by several unique variables.  

One of these pre-determined factors is a personality preference known as action vs. state orientation.  According to Raab, “An action orientation is attributed to players if they concentrate on a specific goal and take risks, whereas a state orientation is attributed to players if they have non-task-relevant cognitions and reduce risk-taking behavior by considering more situative considerations and future behavioral consequences.”  In other words, someone who has an action mentality is more likely to shoot first and ask questions later, while a state oriented player is going to consider more options with more long-term outlook.

For this and similar experiments, Raab and Johnson showed first-person videos of many different basketball in-game scenarios to players of different skill levels and personality types, then froze the scene and asked them to make a quick decision of what to do next with the ball.  They recorded the decision and the time it took to make the decision.  They found that those players who have more of an action orientation, according to a personality test given prior to the drill, were more likely to shoot first and more quickly.  Clearly, Russell Westbrook must fall in this category.

Raab followed up this study with a similar one that measured the difference between intuition-based decisions and more cognitive, deliberate decisions.  A player who “goes with his gut” was shown to make faster and more successful choices than one that over analyzes.  This may help explain the list of elite players who tend to pass more than shoot.  They have more experience and patience to rely on their intuitive feel for the game.  While Goldman and Rao may ask them to be more action oriented, these players have learned that they are often just one more pass away from a much higher percentage shot.

Certainly, this is the tip of the iceberg regarding the psyche of a player at any level.  There are many more variables, some fact-based (I’ve missed my last 5 shots, so I’m going to pass) while some are more emotional, (I don’t want my teammate to get all the glory.)  For now, Thunder fans can only hope that their point guard learns to share.

See also: Are Bank Shots Best In Basketball? and NBA Teams Win With Ethnic Diversity