What Could A Coach Do With A Brain Activity Map?

Bo Ryan
Imagine an NCAA basketball coach trying to create a game plan for their first March Madness game with absolutely no video footage of their upcoming opponent.  Sure, he has their roster with player names, height/weight and positions.  He also has a set of specific stats that show the performance of each player and the team during the season.  Yet, there is no opportunity to see the team play as a unit, how they move the ball, or their communication.  The resulting game strategy would be full of educated guesses and assumptions based on just the macro picture of the roster and the micro world of data and statistics.

Welcome to the world of today’s neuroscientists. To study the brain, they have the 30,000 foot view from tools like functional MRI scans and the microscopic world of neurons and biochemistry.  Everything in the middle, the constant communications between 100 billion neurons, is unable to be observed, leading to theories and best guesses at how we make decisions, free throws and no-look passes.

Much like a library of game video or, better yet, a live stream of the action, researchers need a way to observe and measure our brain’s massive amount of electrical activity and connectivity.  "We don't actually understand (how circuits of neurons) generate all these interesting behaviors we have, like speech and language and thoughts and memory," said John Donoghue, neuroscientist at Brown University, in a recent CNN interview.
Enter the Brain Activity Map (BAM) project.  While there are many ongoing brain mapping research projects currently underway, President Obama alluded to a much more ambitious initiative in his State of the Union address last month.  Since then, details have begun to emerge for a 10-year, $3 billion project to do for brain research what the Human Genome Project did for biology and genetics.  An article published last week in Science hints at the “big rock” goals for BAM as defined by a cross functional team of 11 scientists, including not only neuroscientists but also experts in genetics, nanotechnology, and bioengineering.
Here's a quick (and energetic) intro to BAM:

“We need something large scale to try to build tools for the future,” Rafael Yuste, a neurobiologist at Columbia University, told MIT Technology Review. “We view ourselves as tool builders. I think we could provide to the scientific community the methods that could be used for the next stage in neuroscience.”
To be sure, a project of this size and cost is not being done to help a point guard know when to pass or shoot.  Trying to solve brain disorders like Alzheimer’s or schizophrenia are much higher on the priority list.
Then again, think of the possibilities in just basketball:
-  What is happening in a player’s head when he struggles at the foul line?  We have theories of “choking” but to actually know the electrical patterns of skill versus stress could suggest new ways to deal with it.
-  How is “court vision” represented in the brain and how can we identify and/or train it?
-  Practice and repetition seem to teach a new play or skills to a team, but how can we accelerate the rate of learning?
Time will tell if this latest research initiative provides any of the benefits it promises.  It certainly could fill in the gaps of how we understand athletes as living, thinking people. It might even help us fill out our March Madness brackets.

Be sure to check out Axon’s Athletic Brain Trainer apps for iPad.

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

Is There Bias In Selection Of March Madness Teams?

By examining historical data, statisticians in the College of Science at Virginia Tech have quantified biases that play a role in granting Division I at-large basketball teams inclusion in the NCAA March Madness Tournament.

Assistant professors Leanna House and Scotland Leman found that in addition to the standard Ratings Percentage Index (RPI) used by the 10-member selection committee, biases such as the team's marquee and the strength of its schedule also increase the entry odds for college basketball's tournament.

"We wanted to quantify how much bias there is for bubble teams," Leman said. So-named "bubble teams" are those that do not have an automatic bid but are still considered potential teams to be invited to the tournament. Usually bout 30 teams fall into this category.

One bias for bubble teams, House and Leman found, was consideration of the marquee (or pedigree) of the team. For instance, a team that historically has an outstanding record and is usually included in the tournament has that fact in its favor.

"Having a rich history of a spot in the tournament will 'break the tie,'" House said.  She and Leman found that inclusion probabilities were much higher for marquee teams. For example, in the 2009-10 season, the bias of not being a marquee team lowered Virginia Tech's chances of receiving an at-large bid from 0.83 to 0.31. During the 1999-2000 season, the marquee bias increased the University of North Carolina's chances from 0.32 to 0.85.

"UNC's marquee status during that season had a substantial influence on the committee's decision." Leman said. "Of that, I'm sure."

The statisticians also explored the influence a team's schedule has on its RPI in addition to its record. By using a hypothetical model, Leman and House determined that the more powerhouse teams a bubble team plays in a season, regardless of whether they win or lose, will help them win a bid in the tournament.
"Of course scheduling is a complex process and involves a lot of negotiation," Leman said. "But in cases where a coach is able to select to play a powerful team or a smaller, less powerful team, it is better to pick the power team. The rule of thumb is: the more powerhouse teams, the better."

At the beginning of each March Madness decision-making process, the selection committee is provided documentation that contains season statistics and the RPI for each team. Other measures of team strength are excluded.

"The RPI accounts for known, quantitative biases in raw winning percentages that may impact their ratings, but it has been shown repeatedly that raw winning percentages per team are not adequate for ranking teams," Leman said. "Tournament decisions made for teams with only moderately high RPIs (bubble teams), until now, were not clear."

Leman and House say their research was motivated by a chance meeting with Virginia Tech head basketball coach Seth Greenberg in a restaurant in the spring of 2010. At that time, Virginia Tech had not won a bid for the tournament. Greenberg suggested that he would like to know how tournament decisions are made for at-large teams.

The two statisticians, along with graduate assistants John Szarka and Hayley Nelson, stepped up to the challenge and have presented their conclusions just in time for this year's March Madness to begin.
"We don't want to create, improve, or validate a ranking system," House said. "Our goal was simply to evaluate how the selection committee has chosen teams for the tournament in the past."

Source: Virginia Tech

See also: For Sports Betting, The Crowd Usually Picks The Favorite and Sports Superstitions Just Might Work