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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Go With The Flow - Part 1


Back in the mid-90s, Sun Microsystems, the creator of the Java programming language, coined the marketing slogan “The Network Is The Computer.”  They were describing the Internet of twenty years ago, which obviously has grown into every corner of our lives today, as being as important if not more so than individual computers.  The idea that individual nodes of a network can’t succeed on their own but only through communications and coordination sounds a lot like a pre-game pep talk in the locker room about teamwork and passing.
For continuous play sports like basketball and soccer, the optimal flow of the ball across a connected network of players is critical to winning.  It was only a matter of time before network scientists, who were also sports fans, offered their advice on how these in-game connections can be measured and optimized.
In this two-part series, we’ll first take a look at research done at Arizona State University (ASU) on basketball, then, in the next article, an analysis of soccer networking and player metrics created by an engineering professor at Northwestern University.  In fact, we'll see that "the network is the sport".

In traditional basketball offenses, transitions up the court begin with an inbound or outlet pass to the point guard who then becomes the hub of ball movement until his team eventually attempts a shot.  But is that the most ideal strategy from a network flow standpoint? Even though a team’s point guard may be very skilled, would a less predictable ball movement be harder to defend?
Jennifer Fewell, a professor in ASU’s School of Life Sciences in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and Dieter Armbruster, math professor at ASU, watched and diagrammed every offensive series from the first round of the 2010 NBA playoffs to build a network model for each team.  Knowing the eventual outcome of the first round and the entire postseason, they were able to correlate network movement with wins and losses.  ”We were able to come up with a hypothesis about strategy and then apply network analysis to that,” said Fewell.
Diagram 1 (click to zoom)
First, take a look at Diagram 1, which represents the cumulative network model for all 16 first round playoff teams.  The width of the arrows indicates the number of times that this network path was taken across the the hundreds of plays analyzed by the researchers. The wider the arrow, the more often those two players connected with a pass.  As you can see, starting an inbound play with the point guard (PG) is very common while rebounds typically start with the big men near the glass, centers (CN), power forwards (PF) and small forwards (SF).
Diagram 2 (click to zoom)
However, Diagram 2 shows the network patterns for four teams with increasing success in the playoffs, the Bulls who lost in the first round, the Cavaliers in the 2nd round, and the Celtics who lost to the Lakers in the NBA Finals.  The Bulls relied heavily on their point guard, Derrick Rose, while the champion Lakers used a more distributed model spreading the ball around in their famous “Triangle Offense.”
In fact, this more unpredictable pattern of the Lakers and the Celtics, which Fewell labeled a team’s entropy, was directly related to higher winning percentages across the playoff teams.


“What that basically says is that the most successful teams are the ones that use a less predictable, more distributed offense and that connect their players more,” said Fewell. “Those were the teams that had actually hired more elite players and allowed them to work together.”
Their research was published in PLOS One.
Network models like these also help coaches evaluate players as part of a team in a way that pure stats such as points, assists and rebounds may not capture.  This is especially true in soccer, where scoring is much more rare than basketball.  In our next article, we’ll take a look at the work of Professor Luis Amaral of Northwestern University and a new soccer stat that he calls, “flow centrality.”

Don't Worry, Tony Parker Will Find You

Tony Parker
After the San Antonio Spurs clinched their trip to the NBA Finals, Tim Duncan was asked to describe the contributions of his point guard, Tony Parker.  “Every year he just gets better and better and better,” he commented to the press. “I told him I'm just riding his coattails.”  High praise indeed from a four-time NBA champion and 14-time All-Star.

Duncan’s remarks add to the growing opinion that Parker is the
 best postseason point guard in NBA history.  Whether its his scoring touch, 37 points in Game 4 against Memphis, or his vision on the court, a career best 18 assists in Game 2, Parker has the ability to see what is available in front of him to help his team.  This specialized court vision is rare and originates from a specialized area of the brain, according to new research.
As you watch the video below of Parker’s amazing performance in Game 2, notice the angles and speed with which he has to not only see teammates but then get the ball out his hands.  Vision, reaction, decision and action all happen in a split second.

"Behind what seems to be automatic is a lot of sophisticated machinery in our brain," said Miguel Eckstein, professor in UC Santa Barbara's Department of Psychological & Brain Sciences. "A great part of our brain is dedicated to vision."
Eckstein’s research group recently explored how humans are able to pick out certain objects in a crowded scene (say, for example, Tim Duncan under the basket).  They flashed (250 ms) 640 indoor and outdoor scenes on a screen for volunteer test observers, then asked them to find a certain object in the scene (i.e. a clock in a bedroom scene or a surfer in a beach scene).  In half of the images, the target object was not there.  While they searched the images for the targets, the volunteers’ eye movements were tracked as well as their brain’s electrical activity through the use of a functional MRI machine.
While the volunteers successfully found the target objects 80% of the time that they were in the scene, they were not aware that some of the scenes did not contain the object.  By watching where they focused their gaze to find the object, the researchers discovered that the brain uses logical, contextual clues.  If searching for a surfer, they would look on the water, not the beach; if searching for a truck in a street scene, they fixated on the street, not the sidewalk.  In the image below, the yellow-orange dots show where the person fixed their gaze to find the target object (click for a larger image).
While this seems obvious to us, it is this contextual form of visual searching that computer algorithms still cannot accomplish due to the enormous amount of real world knowledge that we take for granted.
"So, if you're looking for a computer mouse on a cluttered desk, a machine would be looking for things shaped like a mouse. It might find it, but it might see other objects of similar shape, and classify that as a mouse," Eckstein said.
The fMRI images showed that an area of the brain called the lateral occipital complex (LOC) is most active during the test subjects’ scene search.  It is this group of neurons that provides clues to us of the most likely place to look for certain objects.  In the same way, by knowing the Spurs offense and through years of drills and practice, Parker’s LOC can suggest the most logical places to search for teammates and the difference between them and opponents.
The research appears in the Journal of Neuroscience.
“A large component of becoming an expert searcher is exploiting contextual relationships to search,” commented Eckstein. “Thus, understanding the neural basis of contextual guidance might allow us to gain a better understanding about what brain areas are critical to gain search expertise.”
Training an athlete’s visual search skill is critical to success on the court or the field.  Only repetition will provide the LOC with the rich database of contextual scenes needed to spot a curveball, a blitzing linebacker or even Manu Ginóbili on a back door cut.

How Tim Hardaway Sr. Learned To Be A Better Sports Dad


This guest post comes to us from Dr. Andrea Corn, youth sports psychologist and Ethan Skolnick, a sportswriter for the Palm Beach Post covering the Miami Heat:

How does an athletic parent motivate their child? Frequently, with the same tactics that worked with them when they were young. In Raising Your Game: Over 100 Accomplished Athletes Help You Guide Your Girls and Boys Through Sports, Tim Hardaway Sr., acknowledges that, as a child, he took constructive criticism well. He turned others' doubts into the motivation, “to show you I could do it,” he says. His toughness in the face of adversity helped him survive and even thrive in a rough neighborhood on the south side of Chicago.
While developing into an outstanding basketball player, he also developed thick skin. Those attributes propelled him through a long, successful NBA career, which recently earned him selection as a finalist for the Basketball Hall of Fame.

As his son, Tim Jr., became an emerging high school basketball standout, Tim Sr. took the same approach that others had taken with him. He ordered, complained, criticized and didn’t relent when his son seemed to falter. His son, however, didn’t have his dad's disposition. They argued frequently, and the stress affected the entire household.

One day the Warriors and Heat star decided to sit away from his family, far up in the bleachers for one of Tim Jr’s high school games. He saw the game and the ghost of his own behavior literally from a different perspective. Hardaway’s son lost, but the Hardaway family gained something: Tim Sr. chose a different approach.  He apologized on the car ride home and promised more praise. That action proved to be as healthy  for him as it was for his son.

More than a band aid that day, dad’s change of heart and the realization of their unique and independent temperaments proved to be more powerful than he first realized. Hardaway’s transformation and the space he gave his son brought them closer together.

This year at the NCAA Tournament, Tim Sr. wore Michigan maize and blue, and watched his son score 12 points en route to a loss in the Final Four to Louisville. But especially when the box score didn't offer much support, Hardaway Sr's change -- to building up rather than breaking down his son -- allowed his son to continue to know that somewhere inside lives a winner. 

Hardaway Jr will enter the NBA draft this year. And he'll do it with a rebuilt relationship with his father.

Why Steve Nash Makes More Free Throws Than Dwight Howard


Every time Steve Nash goes to the foul line, he shoots five or six free throws. Sure, there’s the two that really count, but the NBA’s all-time free throw percentage leader always takes several imaginary shots before getting the ball.  He says it helps him not only visualize the ball going through the net but also gets his brain and body prepped for the upcoming motor skill.  After almost 3,400 regular season attempts, his 90.4% success rate seems to work, even if Dwight Howard isn’t interested.
Actually, this “dry run” motor imagery is a well-used technique across several sports.  Golfers always take the imaginary swing or putt before stepping up to the ball.  Batters take their nervous hacks before the pitch. Football placekickers, the ultimate “hero or goat” athletes, focus on their warm-up kick before their team breaks the huddle. While mental imagery and visualization are common for athletes, there is growing evidence that including the actual physical motions, also known as dynamic imagery, creates the best results. In a recent study, Aymeric Guillot, neuroscience professor at the University of Lyon, tested elite high jumpers to see if this action-oriented imagery would help them not only clear the bar but use better form.  They performed a series of 10 jumps at 90% of their personal best.  They were randomly asked to perform either a motionless mental imagery session or to use their whole body as much as they could to rehearse the jump, without actually executing it.
Guillot’s team found that basic mental imagery without motion did improve the success of the jumps and the form quality by 35%.  However, those jumpers that included active, dynamic motor imagery increased their success rate and form by 45%.
"Our study on high jumpers suggests that dynamic imagery may provide a training edge to professional and amateur athletes,” commented Guillot. “This technique may also be of use to people in other disciplines where 'dry run' rehearsals are routinely used."
The research appears in the latest issue of “Behavioral and Brain Functions”.
According to basketball coach and sport science Ph.D. candidate Brian McCormick, players need to use a pre-performance routine to prepare their brain:
A pre-performance routine accomplishes three main physical goals:
1.  Stabilizes the motor pattern2.  Adds consistency3.  Establishes a rhythmWhen Nash attempts his practice shot, he uses the Imaging step. Rather than pure visualization, where a player may imagine a previous made shot, Nash adds the kinesthetic element. He imagines the ball going through the basket, but he also feels  the shot.”
McCormick credits Nash’s pre-shot process, kept identical for every attempt:
“When Nash takes a pre-practice shot without the ball, he is accessing the motor pattern and moving it to the working memory. He stabilizes the motor pattern, so he can retrieve the pattern more quickly and effectively than someone who shoots cold. His routine also rhythmically prepares the movement. Most motor skills have a rhythm to them, and Nash feels the rhythm of his shot during the practice shot rather than shooting the real free throw cold.”
Given Nash's well-documented success, who better than the man himself to describe his mindset before each free throw? All players and coaches (wanting to be smarter than Dwight Howard) should watch this video:
Of course, Dwight could keep ignoring Nash's advice, giving us classic highlights like this:

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Why Ray Allen Keeps Practicing

On his way to becoming an Olympic gold medalist, a 10-time NBA All-Star and the NBA’s all-time leader in 3-point baskets made, Ray Allen picked up a certain shooting practice routine.  Not when he was a rookie, or at the University of Connecticut or in high school, but when he was eight years old.  He had to make five right-handed layups then five left-handed layups before he could leave the gym.  If he ran out of time or was forced off the court by others, “I cried,” he told the Boston Globe. “It messed up my day.”

Over the years, given his success, he might be forgiven if he gave the routine a day off, relying on thousands of previous shots to keep the motor skill alive in his brain and his muscles.  But researchers at the University of Colorado may have now discovered why Allen’s insistence to practice beyond perfection continues to yield a return on his investment of time.

Earlier this year, before Allen departed for Miami, Brian Babineau, team photographer for Boston’s Celtics and Bruins, set out to capture Allen’s obsession with his pre-game ritual in a more meaningful way then folklore or photos.  He filmed an entire shootaround trying to capture Allen’s extreme focus on his craft.
“I wanted to show the seriousness of his pre game shooting ritual, his amazing focus and I wanted to imagine what it was like to be in his mind while he was doing it,” Babineau told ESPN. “Once he starts his shooting sets, you can see he’s in the zone, where everything is black and white. Once he finishes a set, there is a short moment of reality until he starts his next set with the same focus and determination. This goes on for his entire routine, at all the same shooting spots on the court, for every game … and he’s been doing this for years.”

While no one has kept track, it would be a safe bet that Allen has surpassed the infamous 10,000 hours of structured practice to reach world class status.  Indeed, he has become the best at what he does and he’s not buying the notion that he was born with “God-given” skills to play basketball. He described that idea as “an insult.” “God could care less whether I can shoot a jump shot.”
So, what’s the point of this endless devotion to practice?  Are there additional benefits that we can’t see on the surface?  A group of neuromechanic researchers at the Integrative Physiology lab at the University of Colorado-Boulder recently found that we can make subtle improvements in efficiency in our motor skill actions even after we’ve mastered the muscular movements of the task.
They asked a group of volunteers to learn to manipulate a mechanical arm so that it would move a cursor on a screen to a target area.  Learning this novel task involved vision, arm movements and repeated feedback to succeed.  After 200 trials to learn the basics, a force field was added to push back on the mechanical arm enough to force a quick adjustment and update to the skill that had just been figured out.  Even after the volunteers had learned to move the cursor, they kept repeating the skill over 500 times.
During this entire learning process, the test subjects’ muscular activity was measured through electrodes on six arm muscles while their breathing was tracked through a mouthpiece.  Surprisingly, during the experiment, the metabolic rates of the volunteers continued to decline even after their muscular activity had leveled off.  In other words, the brain-body cost to performing the task became more efficient over time, even after the muscles showed that the task had been mastered.
“We suspect that the decrease in metabolic cost may involve more efficient brain activity,” Alaa Ahmed, assistant professor at CU, said. “The brain could be modulating subtle features of arm muscle activity, recruiting other muscles or reducing its own activity to make the movements more efficiently.”
Their research appears in the Journal of Neuroscience.
Shooting three point shots throughout a heated, loud, draining NBA game is certainly a tough test of a player's brain-body efficiency.  If Ray Allen can save just a fraction of metabolic energy through the fine tuning of his skill set, it may be just the edge he needs.
“The message from this study is that in order to perform with less effort, keep on practicing, even after it seems as if the task has been learned,” said Ahmed. “We have shown there is an advantage to continued practice beyond any visible changes in performance.”
Practice works.  Just ask Ray Allen.
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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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Are Bank Shots Best In Basketball?

Its the final game of the NCAA basketball tournament and the basketball is in your hands. The score is tied and there are only a few seconds left on the clock. You have the ball about 10 feet away from the basket on the right side of the court, just outside the free-throw lane. It's decision time: Is it best to try a direct shot to win the game on a swish? Or do you use the backboard and bank home the winning basket?  Time's up; the buzzer sounds. Were you a hero or a goat?

New research by engineers at North Carolina State University show that you had a better chance of scoring that particular game-winning bucket with a bank shot than with a direct shot.

After simulating one million shots with a computer, the NC State researchers show that the bank shot can be 20 percent more effective when shooting at many angles up to a distance of about 12 feet from the basket. Bank shots are also more effective from the "wing" areas between the three-point line and the free-throw lane. However, straight-on shots -- those corresponding to the area around the free-throw line -- from further than 12 feet are not as well suited for bank shots.

The researchers also found the optimal points where the simulated made baskets were aimed. The results show the optimal aim points make a "V" shape near the top center of the backboard's "square," which is actually a 24-inch by 18-inch rectangle which surrounds the rim. Away from the free-throw lane, these aim points were higher on the backboard and thus further from the rim. From closer to the free-throw lane, the aim points were lower on the backboard and closer to the rim.
(Credit: Image courtesy of North Carolina State University)

The researchers also discovered that if you imagine a vertical line 3.327 inches behind the backboard and found where it crossed the aim point on the "V" shape on the backboard, you'd find the optimal spot to bank the basketball to score a basket.

"Basketball players can't take a slide rule out on the court, but our study suggests that a few intuitive assumptions about bank shots are true," says Dr. Larry Silverberg, professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at NC State and the lead author of a paper describing the research. "They can be more effective than direct shots, especially from certain areas of the court -- and we show which areas on the court and where the ball needs to hit the backboard."

The researchers made a few assumptions while conducting the study. They used a men's basketball, which is slightly bigger and heavier than a women's basketball; launched the simulated shots from 6, 7, and 8 feet above the ground; and imparted 3 hertz of backspin -- which means three revolutions per second -- on the shots. The latter variable was shown in previous research to be optimal for successfully converting a free throw.


Source: North Carolina State University and Larry M Silverberg, Chau M Tran, Taylor M Adams. Optimal Targets for the Bank Shot in Men's Basketball. Journal of Quantitative Analysis in Sports, 2011; 7 (1) DOI: 10.2202/1559-0410.1299

See also: NBA Teams Win With Ethnic Diversity and  Sports Fans Have Selective Memories

Sideline Raging Soccer Moms (and Dads!)

Visit any youth soccer field, baseball diamond, basketball court or football field and you will likely see them:  parents behaving badly.  Take a look at this Good Morning America report:

These are the extremes, but at most games, you can find at least one adult making comments at the referee, shouting at their child, or having a verbal exchange with another parent.  Thankfully, these parents represent only a small percentage of those attending the game.  Does that mean the others don't become upset at something during the game?  Usually not, as there are lots of opportunities to dispute a bad call or observe rough play or react to one of these loud parents.  

The difference is in our basic personality psyche, according to Jay Goldstein, a kinesiology doctoral student at the University of Maryland School of Public Health.  His thesis, recently published in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology (see reference below), hypothesized that a parent with "control-oriented" personality would react to events at a game more than a parent with an "autonomy-oriented" personality.

According to Goldstein, defending our ego is what usually gets us in trouble when we feel insulted or take something personally.  At youth sports games, we transfer this pride to our kids, so if someone threatens their success on the field, we often take it personally.  The control-oriented parent is more likely to react with a verbal or sometimes physical response, while an autonomy-oriented parent is better able to internalize and maintain their emotions.  This "control" vs. "autonomy" comparison has also been seen in research on "road rage", when drivers react violently to another driver's actions.

Goldstein and his team focused their research on suburban Washington soccer parents back in 2004.  They designed a survey for parents to fill out prior to watching a youth soccer game that would help categorize them as control or autonomy-oriented.  Immediately after the game ended, another survey was given to the parents that asked about any incidents during the game that made them angry on a scale of 1, slightly angry, to 7, furious.  They were also asked what action they took when they were angry.  Choices included "did nothing" to more aggressive acts like walking towards the field and/or yelling or confronting either the referee, their own child, or another player/parent.  53% of the 340 parents surveyed reported getting angry at something during the game, while about 40% reported doing something about their anger.

There was a direct and significant correlation between control-oriented parents, as identified in the pre-game survey, and the level of angry actions they took during the game.  Autonomy-oriented parents still got mad, but reported less aggressive reactions.  As Goldstein notes, “Regardless of their personality type, all parents were susceptible to becoming more aggressive as a result of viewing actions on the field as affronts to them or their kids.  However, that being said, it took autonomy-oriented parents longer to get there as compared to the control-oriented parents.”

So, now that we know the rather obvious conclusion that parents who yell at other motorists are also likely to yell at referees, what can we do about it?  Goldstein sees this study as a first step.  He hopes to study a wider cross-section of sports and socio-economic populations.  Many youth sports organizations require parents to sign a pre-season "reminder" code of conduct, but those are often forgotten in the heat of the battle on the field.  

Maybe by offering the same type of personality survey prior to the season, the "control-oriented" parents can be offered resources to help them manage their tempers and reactions during a game.  Since referees were the number one source of frustration reported by parents, two solutions are being explored by many organizations; more thorough referee training and quality control while also better training of parents on the rules of the game which often cause the confusion.

Sports contests will always be emotional, from kids' games all the way up to professionals.  Keeping the games in perspective and our reactions positive are tough things to do but when it comes to our kids, it is required.

ResearchBlogging.org

Goldstein, J.D., Iso-Ahola, S.E. (2008). Determinants of Parents' Sideline-Rage Emotions and Behaviors at Youth Soccer Games. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 38(6), 1442-1462. DOI: 10.1111/j.1559-1816.2008.00355.x

Does Practice Make Perfect?


For years, sport science and motor control research has added support to the fundamental assertions that "practice makes perfect" and "repetition is the mother of habit".  Shooting 100 free throws, kicking 100 balls on goal or fielding 100 ground balls must certainly build the type of motor programs in the brain that will only help make the 101st play during the game.  K. Anders Ericsson, the "expert on experts", has defined the minimum amount of "deliberate practice" necessary to raise any novice to the level of expert as 10 years or 10,000 hours.

However, many questions still exist as to exactly how we learn these skills.  What changes happen in our brains when we teach ourselves a new task?  What is the most effective and efficient way to master a skill?  Do we have to be actually performing the skill to learn it, or could we just watch and learn? 


Then, once we have learned a new skill and can repeat it with good consistency, why can't we perform it perfectly every time?  Why can't we make every free throw, score with every shot on goal, and field each ground ball with no errors?  We would expect our brain to just be able to repeat this learned motor program with the same level of accuracy.

To answer these questions, we look at two recent studies.  The first, by a team at Dartmouth's Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences, led by Emily Cross, who is now a post-doc at Max Planck Institute for Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Leipzig, Germany, wanted to know if we need to physically perform a new task to learn it, or if merely observing others doing it would be enough. 

The "task" they chose was to learn new dance steps from a video game eerily similar to "Dance, Dance Revolution".  If you (or your kids) have never seen this game, its a video game that you actually get up off the couch and participate in, kind of like the Nintendo Wii.  In this game, a computer screen (or TV) shows you the dance moves and you have to imitate them on a plastic mat on the floor connected to the game.  If you make the right steps, timed to the music, you score higher.

Cross and the team "taught" their subjects in three groups.  The first group was able to view and practice the new routine.  The second group only was allowed to watch the new routine, but not physically practice it.  The third group was a control group that did not get any training at all.  The subjects were later scanned using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) while they watched the same routine they had either learned (actively or passively) or not seen (the control group).


As predicted, they found that the two trained groups showed common activity in the Action Observance Network (AON) in the brain (see image on left), a group of neural regions found mostly in the inferior parietal and premotor cortices of the brain (near the top of the head) responsible for motor skills and some memory functions.  In other words, whether they physically practised the new steps or just watched the new steps, the same areas of the brain were activated and their performance of the new steps were significantly similar.  The team put together a great video summarizing the experiment.  

One of the themes from this study is that, indeed, learning a motor skill takes place in the brain.  This may seem like an obvious statement, but its important to accept that the movements that our limbs make when performing a skill are controlled by the instructions provided from the brain.  So, what happens when the skill breaks down?  Why did the quarterback throw behind the receiver when we have seen him make that same pass accurately many times?  


To stay true to our theme, we have to blame the brain.  It may be more logical to point to a mechanical breakdown in the player's form or body movements, but the "set-up" for those movements starts with the mental preparation performed by the brain.


In the second study, electrical engineers at Stanford University took a look at these questions to try to identify where the inconsistencies of movement start.  They chose to focus on the "mental preparation" stage which occurs just before the actual movement.  During this stage, the brain plans the coordination and goal for the movement prior to initiating it.  The team designed a test where monkeys would reach for a green dot or a red dot.  If green, they were trained to reach slowly for the dot; if red, to reach quickly.  By monitoring the areas of the monkeys' brains through fMRI, they observed activity in the AON prior to the move and during the move.  


Over repeated trials, changes in reach speed were associated with changes in pre-movement activity.  So, instead of perfectly consistent reach times by the monkeys, they saw variation, like we might see when trying to throw strikes with a baseball many times in a row.  Their conclusion was that this planning activity in the brain does have an effect on the outcome of the activity.  Previously, research had focused only on breakdowns during the actual move and in the mechanics of muscles.  This study shows that the origin of the error may start earlier.


As electrical engineering Assistant Professor Krishna Shenoy stated, "the main reason you can't move the same way each and every time, such as swinging a golf club, is that your brain can't plan the swing the same way each time."  

Postdoctoral researcher and co-author Mark Churchland added, "The nervous system was not designed to do the same thing over and over again.  The nervous system was designed to be flexible. You typically find yourself doing things you've never done before." 
The Stanford team also has made a nice short video synopsis of their study.

Does practice make perfect?  First, we must define "practice".  We saw that it could be either active or passive.  Second, we know sports skills are never "perfect" all the time, and need to understand where the error starts before we can begin to fix it.

Stats Vs. Hunches - The Moneyball Era In Sports

Most baseball general managers live in obscurity most of their careers.  Its their first hire, the manager, that usually gets the red hot spotlight, after every win and loss, second-guessed by reporters with recorders and then later by fans.  The GM puts the players on the field and lets the manager and his coaches take it from there.  Billy Beane , Oakland A's general manager, could have also been an unknown, albeit interesting, name to the baseball audience if it were not for author Michael Lewis' 2003 book, Moneyball .  Moneyball was a runaway hit (even today, 5 years later, it is #19 on Amazon's list of baseball books).  It has morphed into a full-fledged catchphrase philosophy used by everyone from Wall Street (where Beane borrowed the concept) to business consulting.  The general theme is to find undervalued assets (ballplayers) by focusing on statistics that your competition is ignoring.  Of course, you have to believe in your metrics and their predictive value for success (why has everyone else ignored these stats?)  The source of most of Beane's buried treasure of stats was Bill James and his Sabrmetrics.  Like picking undervalued stocks of soon to explode companies, Beane looked for the diamond in the dust (pun intended) and sign the player while no one was looking.  Constrained by his "small-market" team revenues, or maybe by his owners' crowbar-proof wallets, he needed to make the most from every dollar.


The combination of a GM's shrewd player selection and a manager who can develop that talent should reward the owner with the best of both worlds: an inexpensive team that wins.  This salary vs. performance metric is captured perfectly in this "real-time" graphic at BenFry.com .  It connects the updated win-loss record for each MLB team with its payroll to show the "bang for the buck" that the GMs/managers are getting from their players.  Compare the steep negative relationship for the Mets, Yankees, Tigers and Mariners with the amazing results of the Rays, Twins and Beane's own A's.  While the critics of Moneyball tactics would rightly point to the A's lack of a World Series win or even appearance, the "wins to wages" ratio has not only kept Beane in a job but given him part ownership in the A's and now the newly resurrected San Jose Earthquakes of soccer's MLS.  Beane believes the same search for meaningful and undiscovered metrics in soccer can give the Quakes the same arbitrage advantage.  In fact, there are rumours that he will focus full-time on conquering soccer as he knows there are much bigger opportunities worldwide if he can prove his methods within MLS.

In baseball, Beane relied on the uber-stat guru, Bill James, for creative and more relevant statistical slices of the game.  In soccer, he is working with some top clubs including his new favorite, Tottenham-Hotspur, of the English Premier League.  While he respects the history and tradition of the game, he is confident that his search for a competitive advantage will uncover hidden talents.  Analytical tools from companies such as Opta in Europe and Match Analysis in the U.S. have combined video with detailed stat breakdowns of every touch of the ball for every player in each game.  Finding the right pattern and determinant of success has become the key, according to Match Analysis president Mark Brunkhart as quoted earlier this year,
"You don't need statistics to spot the real great players or the really bad ones. The trick is to take the players between those two extremes and identify which are the best ones.  If all you do is buy the players that everyone else wants to buy then you will end up paying top dollar. But if you take Beane's approach - to use a disciplined statistical process to influence the selection of players who will bring the most value - then you are giving yourself the best chance of success. Who would not want to do that?"

Not to feel left out (or safe from scrutiny), the NBA now has its own sport-specific zealots.  The Association for Professional Basketball Research (APBR) devotes its members time and research to finding the same type of meaningful stats that have been ignored by players, coaches and fans.  They, too, have their own Moneyball-bible, "The Wages of Wins " by David Berri, Martin Schmidt, and Stacey Brook.  David Berri's WoW journal/blog regularly posts updates and stories related to the current NBA season and some very intriguing analysis of its players and the value of their contributions.  None other than Malcolm Gladwell, of Tipping Point and Blink fame, provided the review of Wages of Wins for the New Yorker.  One of the main stats used is something called a player's "Win Score" which attempts to measure the complete player, not just points, rebounds and assists.
Win Score (WS) = PTS + REB + STL + ½*BLK + ½*AST – FGA – ½*FTA – TO – ½*PF.   (Points, Rebounds, Steals, Blocked Shots, Assists, Field Goal Attempts, Free Throw Attempts, Turnovers, Personal Fouls)

WS is then adjusted for minutes played with the stat, WS48.  Of course, different player positions will have different responsibilities, so to compare players of different positions the Position Adjusted Win Score per 48 minutes or PAWS48 is calculated as: WS48 – Average WS48 at primary position played.  This allows an apples to apples comparison between players at a position, and a reasonable comparison of players' values across positions.  Berri's latest article looks at the fascination with Michael Beasley and some early comparisons in the Orlando Summer League. 

Will these statistics-based approaches to player evaluation be accepted by the "establishment"?  Judging by the growing number of young, MBA-educated GMs in sports, there is a movement towards more efficient and objective selection criteria.  Just as we saw in previous evidence-based coaching articles , the evidence-based general manager is here to stay.

So Why Can't Shaq Make Free Throws?

The NBA league average for free throw shooting is about 75%. Shaquille O'Neal's career average is 52.4%. Even worse, Ben Wallace's career average is 41.9%. The average for the NCAA Division 1 teams is 69%. The obvious question is why can't Shaq or Ben or Memphis do any better, but the bigger question is why do most of the best basketball players in the world miss 2 or 3 free throws out of 10? Maybe they just haven't heard about Joan Vickers and the "Quiet Eye".

For me, the best science is applied science. The same goes for sports science. Theories, physics, psychology, etc. are only useful in sports if they can be used to improve in-game performance. That's why I have always been a fan of academic work that leads to useful techniques in the field. Professor Joan Vickers of the University of Calgary has been applying her research into the human visual system and its effects on sports performance for over 25 years. She is the discoverer of the "Quiet Eye" skill that has been shown to significantly improve accuracy in targeting and decision-making skills in many sports. In addition to this "gaze control" technique, she also has developed a 7-step teaching process to improve the in-game decision-making of athletes, based partly on their visual perception skills.

She has a new book out that condenses all of these ideas, called Perception, Cognition and Decision Training. Over the next few days, I will do my best to paraphrase and explain the most useful information and techniques, but of course the best source is this book.
For an opening primer on the Quiet Eye, please take a look at this episode and this online video of PBS' Scientific American with Hawkeye himself, Alan Alda, shooting free throws.