For Mookie Betts, Its Brains Over Brawn For Hitting Success

For Mookie Betts, Its Brains Over Brawn For Hitting Success

See the ball, hit the ball.

For those baseball hitters who can do the former, the latter comes much easier. Seeing, identifying and selecting which pitch to swing at is a combination of visual perception, brain processing and motor skill execution. Sure, the physics of hitting a baseball, measured by things called launch angle and exit velocity, determine the trajectory and distance of a batted ball. But it’s that pre-contact decision making process that gets hitters on base so they can score runs and win games. Just as bat speed, leg drive and arm strength define the distance of a hit, the purely cognitive skills of perception, information processing and hand-eye coordination pick out the best pitch to hit and, more importantly, which pitch to avoid.

And when you’re 5 feet, 9 inches tall, you rely on those brain skills much more than physical dominance to stay up in the big leagues. That’s exactly what Mookie Betts, right fielder for the 2018 World Champion Boston Red Sox, has done over his young four-season career. Sure, he won the AL batting title this year with a .346 batting average, but he also had a league high slugging percentage, with 32 home runs and 80 RBIs.

Substituting brain for brawn, Betts excels in a category of baseball analytics known as plate discipline, in other words, picking the right pitch to swing at and then making contact with that swing. In the pre-swing decision-making process, hitters with good plate discipline swing at pitches in the strike zone, not out of it. When they do decide to swing, they make contact more often with better hand-eye coordination.

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The Playmaker's Advantage - Introduction

The Playmaker's Advantage - Introduction

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

© 2018 by Leonard Zaichkowsky and Daniel Peterson

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

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

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

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

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Maybe Your Kids Inherited Your Couch Potato Genes

On the road to sports success, young athletes need two ingredients, innate skills and the willingness and determination to get better.

We all know boys and girls who showed early promise that got them noticed but then didn’t have the drive to practice every day to develop that talent. Often labeled lazy or unmotivated, the assumption was that they chose their own path by not working hard.

However, new research shows evidence that genetics may play a role not only in the natural abilities of a developing superstar but also in their practice persistence and physiological response to training.

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Achieving The Rise Of Flow: An Interview With Steven Kotler

wo years before he stood on the Sochi Olympics podium with a gold medal around his neck, alpine skier Ted Ligety took a trip to Alaska.  There was no qualifying race or Team USA training session, but rather a heli-skiing trek in the Chugach Mountains with a film crew from Warren Miller Entertainment.  

The risk level was high, even for one of the best skiers in the world.  But that's what keeps the best on the knife's edge balance of skill and fear.  To survive requires being in the state of Flow.

"The Flow State is a place where the impossible becomes possible, where time slows down and a perfect moment becomes attainable," Director Max Bervy said    . "This film reveals what it is like to be completely immersed in the present ... completely immersed in the snow, in the mountains, and in the enjoyment of winter."

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From Fighter Pilots To Hockey Players, Cognitive Training Gets Results

“He has great field vision.” “Her court awareness is the difference.” “He seems to have eyes in the back of his head.” Beyond physical talent and technical abilities, some players seem to have this sixth sense of awareness on a court, rink or field that allows them to keep track of their teammates and their opponents so that they can make the perfect pass or step in at the last second to make a defensive stop.  

Coaches often praise and search for this elusive intangible that appears to be a genetic gift but, according to research, is actually a trainable skill.  

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Balancing The Running Back's Brain

One of Associate Head Coach Burton Burns’ favorite drills for his University of Alabama running backs has them hopping over pads with both feet, teaching his players balance and more importantly how to recover from a stumble. 

One of his many star students was Trent Richardson, who liked the drill. “Even my freshman year when we were against North Texas and I had a long run and I could feel it near the end, someone just hit my feet,” Richardson told AL.com. “We get our feet up, it's better for us to keep our balance.” 

As you watch the video of the drill below, notice the stumbles after the second or third hurdle. Their brain engages in some fast calculations to sense the pending fall and sends signals out to the limbs to adjust for the unexpected body position. How exactly our brain senses a balance problem and how quickly we can adjust are the questions of two new research studies at McGill University and the University of Michigan.

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The Secret Ingredient to Sports Success: An Interview With David Epstein On The Sports Gene

The Sports Gene
Maybe its not all about practice.  Since the youth sports world fell in love with the romantic notion that 10,000 hours of structured practice is the magic ingredient to world-class mastery in just about any field, especially sports, we've forgotten or ignored that our genetic endowment may still have something to do with the outcome.  Just watch this video of a young Lionel Messi, who was probably still working towards his 10,000 hour total at the time.  He clearly has something else, something that was already there at age 5 and something that the other kids didn't have.

David Epstein, senior writer at Sports Illustrated, has been on a search for that extra something.  In his new book, The Sports Gene, Epstein launched himself directly into the nature vs. nurture, genes vs. practice and natural vs. self-made debates about athletic greatness.


I recently had a chance to chat with David about his book and found out that there is a complex, misunderstood mixture of variables in the magic formula:


David, congratulations on your new book!  One of my all-time favorite SI articles of yours is the 2010 piece “Sports Genes”.  At the time, you opened many eyes on the influence of genetics on athletic performance.  Is it safe to say that the science and our understanding of it has come a long way in the last three years?

David Epstein
David Epstein: I appreciate that! I think it safe to say that the science has come a very long way in the last three years. At the same time, the studies of genes related to sports performance is still hampered by certain problems. A decade ago, scientists hoped that genetics might be simple; that single traits, like, say, height, might be attributable to a single gene or a small number of genes. But now it’s clear that most traits—and certainly those as complex as athleticism—can involve large numbers of genes, each with a small effect. That can make things particularly tricky for studying elite athletes, because there aren’t very many elite athletes in the world, so studies are often too small to detect the effects of relevant genes. 

Still, using certain innovative methods, like those described in chapter five of my book, scientists are pinpointing some of the genetic influences on an individual’s ability to adapt to a training regimen. And that now looks to be a key component of “talent,” not simply some skill that manifests prior to training, but the very biological setup that makes one athlete better at adapting to a particular training plan. In recent years, both with respect to endurance and strength training, the science has increasingly shown that genes mediate the ability to “respond” to training, and it appears that work will continue to be bolstered. People often say “I’m not very talented in this or that area,” but the genetic work is increasingly showing that we can’t necessarily know if we have talent before we try training.

In the book, you tell the story of Dan McLaughlin, an amateur golfer, who has put his life on hold while he accumulates the infamous 10,000 hours of deliberate practice towards his goal of playing on the PGA Tour.  You document how genetics can offer exclusive physical advantages for sprinters, swimmers or even baseball batters.  However, in sports like golf, dominated more by mental skill than brute physical abilities, does genetics still play a role or is it all about practice?

DE: That’s a great question. For starters, there is less scientific evidence regarding genes that influence skill in very technical sports, like golf, but that is partly because those skills are difficult to study. We have enough trouble finding genes for simple traits, like height, and physiologists don’t even understand everything that makes a great golfer, much less the genes that undergird the particular physiological traits. As Sir Roger Bannister once said: “The human body is centuries in advance of the physiologist, and can perform an integration of heart, lungs, and muscles which is too complex for the scientist to analyze.” No where is this complexity more difficult for scientists to link to specific traits than in sports based on specialized skills. So one reason there’s more known about genes—or innate physiological traits—that influence the more raw athletic skills is simply because scientists more often choose to study athletes engaged in more “raw” sports. The idea is it will be easier to find the biological influences. 

That said, there are mounds of studies that show that when individuals practice motor skills, differences in the rate of progress become apparent in all but extremely simple skills. In some studies, the more complex the skill, the greater the differences between individuals will become as they practice. In other words, there are differences in “trainability.” Which genes are at play here is largely a mystery, but that doesn’t mean they don’t exist. Remember, we don’t know many of the genes that influence height, and yet from studies of families and large populations, we know quite well that differences in the heights of adults in any given population are generally at least 80% inherited. 

To use an example relevant to some of the writing in my book, left-handed people are highly overrepresented among chess masters. We don’t know what the “left handed genes” are, but we know there is a genetic component. Men are about twice as likely to be left handed as women, for example. So it would seem as if certain genes for left-handedness, which of course means brains that influence motor control in the brain, interact with the learning of a skill like chess. As a related aside, Belgian scientist Debbie Van Beisen has shown that competitive table tennis players with mental handicaps fail to learn the anticipatory cues required to return shots as quickly as similarly experienced table tennis players who do not have mental handicaps.

Additionally (and I actually had to trim much of this from the book) there is some interesting work implicating specific genes in motor skill learning. Here’s a snippet I had to cut from the book, as my first draft was WAY over printable length:

“The level of BDNF is elevated in the brain’s motor cortex when people learn a motor skill, and BDNF is one of the neural signals that coordinates the reorganization of the brain when skills are learned. And a 2006 study found that, when people practiced motor skills with their right hand—like putting small pegs in holes as quickly as possible—the area of the activated brain representing the right hand, the neural “motor map,” increased in size with practice only in those people who did not have a met version of the BDNF gene. All of the subjects started with similar sized motor maps, but only the non-met carriers experienced a change with practice.

And in 2010 a group of scientists led by neurologist Steven C. Cramer set out explicitly to test whether the BDNF gene impacts the kind of memory involved in motor skill learning, and their findings suggest that it does. In that study, people drove a car along a digital track 15 separate times in one day. All of the drivers improved as they learned the course, but the met carriers did not improve as much. And when all the drivers were asked back four days hence and made to drive the course once more, the met carriers made more mistakes. When scientists used fMRI to look at the drivers’ brains as they practiced simple motor skills, they found different patterns of activation in the people who had a met version of the BDNF gene.”


Recently, Atlas Sports Genetics has caused a stir in youth sports by offering parents a test for their kids to look for a certain variation of the ACTN3 gene, otherwise known as the “speed gene.”  You mention that this test is only useful to know if your youngster is the next Usain Bolt or Carmelita Jeter, something parents probably already know.  What’s next on the horizon for genetic testing for young athletes?  Are there genes or combinations of genes for traits like reaction time, balance or coordination?

DE: First, just to clarify, the ACTN3 gene is only really useful for telling you that your youngster will not be the next Bolt—if they don’t have the so-called “right” version for sprinting. But it doesn’t even do a very specific job of that, since most people have the “right” version. And, let’s face it, you can take your kid to the playground and have him race the other kids and you’ll get a better idea of his chances of becoming the next Bolt than you would with a genetic test. 

As far as the next frontier of genetic testing for young athletes, I think it will undoubtedly be “injury genes,” before performance genes, and we’re already actually starting to see a bit of that. I spent some time with Brandon Colby, an L.A.-based physician who treats retired NFL players, and—at the behest of parents—he already tests some teenagers for their version of the ApoE gene. As I write in the book, one version of this gene makes an individual more susceptible to brain damage from concussions or the kind of hits to the head to occur on every football play. There are other gene variants that put some athletes at risk of dropping dead on the field, and others that appear to increase the risk of an injury like a ruptured Achilles tendon or torn ACL. 

As I discuss in the book, some of these genes are actually now being used for practical purposes, and I think that we’ll see that increase. As for reaction time, I don’t think we’ll see much there, given that, as I explain in the first chapter, the simple reaction times—the time it takes one to hit a button in response to a light—of elite athletes are no different than those of teachers, lawyers, or college kids. The skills that allow hitters to intercept 100 mph fastballs are learned perceptual skills, not innate reaction abilities. And even if simple reaction time was important, it would be way easier to measure directly—by giving someone a reaction time test—than indirectly by looking at genes.

Here at Sports Are 80 Percent Mental, we talk a lot about the brain’s role in playing sports.  From vision to perception to decision making to emotions, the brain plays a critical role in sports success.  What have we learned about neurogenetics that can influence an athlete’s performance from a cognitive perspective?

DE: One of the most surprising things I learned in my reporting was that scientists know quite well that not only does the dopamine system in the brain—which is involved in the sense of pleasure and reward—respond to physical activity, but it can also drive physical activity. 

One of the scientists I quote in the book suggests that this may be why very active children who take Ritalin, which alters dopamine levels, suddenly have less drive to move around. That’s precisely what he sees when he gives Ritalin to the rodents he breeds for high voluntary running, anyway. And it appears that different versions of genes involved in the dopamine system influence the drive to be active. (Interestingly, native populations that are nomadic and that migrate long distances tend to have a higher prevalence of a particular dopamine receptor gene; the same one that predisposes people to ADHD. I discuss in the book the possible link.) 

One of my takeaways from the research I did for the book was that some traits we think are innate, like the bullet-fast reactions of a Major League hitter, are not, and others that we often portray as entirely voluntary—like the compulsive drive to train—can have important genetic components. Additionally, the section of the book that deals with pain in sports, and discusses the genetics of pain, gets into the fact that the circuitry of pain is shared with circuitry of emotion. (Morphine, after all, doesn’t so much dull pain as make one less upset about it.) And the first genes that are emerging that might allow athletes to deal calmly with pain on the field—like, perhaps, the COMT “warrior/worrier” gene—are genes involved in the metabolism of neurotransmitters in the brain. And, of course, as I mentioned in my longwinded answer to the second question, there are genes that appear to influence motor learning.

David, you were a competitive runner in your college days at Columbia and I understand you still run quite a bit.  Has the research for this book given you any insight or tips that you or other weekend athletes can use?

DE: Indeed I was. I was an 800-meter runner. I still love running, but I’d call what I do now “jogging”! But working on this book gave me certain broad insights that I apply to my own training. In 2007, the prestigious peer-reviewed journal Science listed “human genetic variation” as the breakthrough of the year; the revelation of how truly different we are from one another. And, as J.M. Tanner, the eminent growth expert (and world class hurdler) once put it: “Everyone has a different genotype. Therefore, for optimal development…everyone should have a different environment.” No two people respond to a Tylenol the same way because of their distinct biology, and no two people respond to the medicine of exercise the same way either. 

When I was in college, I had better endurance—at all distances—on a training plan of 35 miles per week that included carefully selected intervals, than I had previously on 85 miles per week of cookie-cutter distance training. If you aren’t taking a scientific approach to your training—and this doesn’t mean cutting edge science, but just paying attention to what you best respond to—then you aren’t getting everything out of yourself. To use track, because it’s just an easy example, in every training group from high school to the pros, you have groups of runners doing identical workouts, and yet never crossing the line at the same time in a race. 

Genetic science is showing us that the most important kind of “talent” isn’t some physical trait that preexists training, but rather that ability to physically adapt to training. And studies I describe in the book make it quite clear that particular genes mediate an individual’s ability to benefit from training such that two people can have drastically different results from the same training plan. 

So if you feel like, for some reason, you aren’t getting results on par with your training partner, you might be right. And the problem might be you, in the very deepest sense. So don’t be afraid to try something different. Several of the athletes I write about in the book weren’t afraid to jump into entirely new activities or training plans, and some came out world champions.

Thank you, David and good luck with the book!


How To Train The Batter's Brain To Reduce Strikeouts

It’s not getting any easier being a big league hitter.  Consider that in 2003, only three pitchers lit up the radar gun at 95 mph or more on at least 700 of their pitches, according to the Wall Street Journal’s Matthew Futterman.  Last season, 17 pitchers were able to bring that speed consistently.  In 2003, only Billy Wagner threw at least 25 pitches at or above 100 mph compared to seven pitchers last year.
Has the added heat affected the hitters? You bet.  Strikeouts in the MLB totalled 36,426 last season, an 18.3% increase over 2003.  To see the rise over the last 100 seasons, look at this interactive NY Times graphic.  "It's pretty simple," said Rick Peterson, director of pitching development for the Baltimore Orioles, in the WSJ article. "The harder you throw, the less time the batter has to swing and the harder it is to make contact.
Let’s crunch some numbers on the hitter’s dilemma.  At 100 mph, the ball will leave the pitcher’s hand and travel the 60’ 6” to the plate in under a half second (.412 to be exact).  For those facing a pitcher throwing “only” 80 mph, you get an additional 1/10 of a second.  Now, factor in that it takes 100 milliseconds for the image of the ball hitting your eyes to be delivered to and acknowledged by your brain.  Again at 100 mph, that lag means your brain is contemplating a ball’s location that has already travelled an additional 12.5 feet.
How then are players able to get around on a pitch at that speed, let alone make contact?  According to vision scientists at UC Berkeley, our brains make guesses.  Using the perceived speed and path of the ball actually seen, our visual cortex fast forwards it to a future location.  It is at that estimated point that we direct our muscles to make contact with the bat.
“For the first time, we can see this sophisticated prediction mechanism at work in the human brain,” said Gerrit Maus, postdoctoral psychology fellow and lead author of new research published this week in the journal, Neuron.
Maus and his fellow UC Berkeley researchers, Jason Fischer and David Whitney, were able to discover this prediction ability by actually fooling the brains of volunteers.  They asked six volunteers to watch a computer screen showing an optical illusion while their brains were being watched by an fMRI machine, which records and displays brain activity.
Called the “flash-drag effect”, the illusion (see video below) flashes stationary objects on the screen against a moving background.  The objects seem to move in the direction of the background motion, even though their location is fixed.  “The brain interprets the flashes as part of the moving background, and therefore engages its prediction mechanism to compensate for processing delays,” Maus said.

From the fMRI images, they observed activity in the V5 region of the visual cortex, pinpointing where this prediction model gets built in our brain.  “The image that hits the eye and then is processed by the brain is not in sync with the real world, but the brain is clever enough to compensate for that,” Maus said. “What we perceive doesn’t necessarily have that much to do with the real world, but it is what we need to know to interact with the real world.”
So, what can a hitter do to fine tune this predictive mechanism?  In a talk at last year’s Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, Peter Fadde, professor at Southern Illinois University, presented what he calls the “sixth tool”, aka pitch recognition.  By watching videos of a pitcher’s windup and release, but occluding the flight of the ball at different points in its path, a batter can exercise his or her visual cortex to make better models of ball flight and speed.


Strikeouts still matter at the next level.  Keith Hernandez, the former MVP and batting champ, told the WSJ, "Guys don't seem to care about striking out anymore, but when you strike out, you're not putting the ball in play, and when you don't do that, nothing can happen."

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 Football Players React To Sound On The Field


Russell Wilson
For as much as we hear about the importance of vision on the football field, there are quite a few phrases emphasizing the sounds of the game, such as “he heard footsteps coming”, “listen for the audible at the line”, “play until you hear the whistle” and even the backhanded compliment to the ears, “he has eyes in the back of his head.”

Listening is a skill to be exploited for better anticipation, reactions and decision-making.  Now, neuroscience researchers have filled in some missing details of how we actually use the sounds around us to instantly direct our muscles to take action.

To appreciate the benefit of listening during a game, NFL Films mic'd up the Seahawks' QB Russell Wilson in week 17 last season.  As you watch (and listen) to the video below, focus your ears on the verbal communications and noisy environment on the sidelines, in the huddle and at the line of scrimmage.  A player's auditory processing must be just as active as his visual sense.

So, how do our brains take in all of those sound waves, separate the signal from the noise and then instantly make decisions on how our muscles should react?  Neuroscientists have been working on the missing link in the middle. “We know that sound is coming into the ear; and we know what's coming out in the end -- a decision," said Anthony Zador, biology professor and program chair at Cold Springs Harbor Laboratory.
From past research, we know that sounds we hear travel through our ears to the auditory cortex part of our brain.  Here they are translated into electrical impulses known as representations. From there, no one was sure how these representations mix with other input, knowledge and goals already in our brain to become specific reactive movements.
Last year, Zador and Dr. Petr Znamenskiy trained lab rats to listen to a sound and then make a decision to turn and run right if they heard a high pitch sound but to go left for a low pitch sound.  By observing the neuron pattern of the rats, they discovered that the sequence from hearing to muscle movement takes a different path than expected.
"It turns out the information passes through a particular subset of neurons in the auditory cortex whose axons wind up in another part of the brain, called the striatum," said Zador.  They found that only a few of the neurons send information to the striatum, known primarily for planning movement.
“The neurons registering 'high' and 'low' are represented by a specialized subset of neurons in their local area, which we might liken to members of Congress or the Electoral College,” commented Zador. “These in turn transmit the votes of the larger population to the place -- in this case the auditory striatum -- in which decisions are made and actions are taken."
Their research just appeared in the journal Nature.
Here’s Zador describing the overall process of turning hearing into action:


As much as players study film, there are opportunities to introduce the sounds of the game into their training. Both understanding verbal communications and sensing environmental sounds contribute to on-field success.  It starts by closing the eyes and listening to the game.

The Neuroscience Of Pitch Recognition


When asked to describe Greg Maddux, the retired 4-time Cy Young award-winning pitcher, Wade Boggs, a Hall of Fame hitter with a .328 lifetime batting average, once said, “It seems like he's inside your mind with you. When he knows you're not going to swing, he throws a straight one. He sees into the future. It's like he has a crystal ball hidden inside his glove.” 
So, what did Maddux know that other pitchers don’t?  Neuro-engineers from Columbia University decided to actually look inside some hitters' brains to try to find out.
Maddux, who seems to be a lock for the 2014 Hall of Fame class, earned a reputation for knowing batters so well that he could think one step ahead of them.  "When you think it's a ball, it's a strike,” confessed former Yankees manager Joe Torre. “When you swing at what you think is a strike, it's in the dirt. He was a remarkable pitcher."  This lack of pitch recognition skill by hitters is what all good pitchers try to exploit.  While hours of batting practice try to teach this through repetition, there have been surprisingly few attempts at finding out what’s really happening under the batting helmet.
Jason Sherwin, Jordan Muraskin and Paul Sajda, biomedical engineers at Columbia’sLaboratory for Intelligent Imaging and Neural Computing, specialize in motion perception and high speed decision making but are also baseball fans.  Last year, they reported that they had been able to pinpoint the timing of pitch recognition within the brain.  Fitted with electroencephalography (EEG) skull caps, test volunteers watched 12 sets of 50 different video pitches that were either a fastball, a curve or a slider.  They were asked to immediately identify the pitch they just saw, before the pitch arrived over the plate, by pressing a certain computer key.

Comparing correct answers with the EEG data, the researchers were able to determine the exact millisecond when recognition happened in the brain, or when the hitter locks onto a pitch knowing what’s on the way.  Fastballs were the fastest to be recognized with curve balls taking the longest.  However, sliders had the highest average prediction accuracy at 91% while fastballs were only guessed correctly 72% of the time.
Mapping the response times with the trajectory of the ball, the recognition typically happened in the middle third, between 32 and 40 feet, of the ball’s path to the plate.
Their study appeared last year in Frontiers in Decision Neuroscience.
After discovering when pitch recognition happens in the brain, the team then wanted to see where it occurred.  By combining the timing clues from EEG with the location-specific data of functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), they could see a more complete model of decision making.  This time they used college baseball players and showed them a combination of 468 fastballs, curves and sliders, while wearing EEG caps and lying inside an fMRI machine.
Figure 1
Cross-referencing the pitch’s trajectory, the “light bulb” recognition moment and the fMRI map of the player’s brain, they not only confirmed their earlier research of a pitch-guessing neural network but also a fascinating twist.  For correct guesses, the brain logically lit up in its visual and motor cortex areas.

However, for the incorrect guesses, activity moved to the prefrontal cortex of the brain, known to be used for conflict resolution and higher level decision making. As can be seen in Figure 1, red areas indicate regions that have higher activations during correct pitch guesses, while blue areas indicate regions with higher activations for incorrect choices.
So, when the visual information isn’t enough for an automatic recognition, it appears that the problem gets escalated to add in other known facts or previous experiences.
This new research was presented at last month’s Sloan Sports Analytics Conference.
So, what good would this baseball neuroscience be against today’s great pitchers?  The authors ask us to imagine a new era of baseball training, where step one is to capture a baseline of each player’s neural recognition ability.  Realizing when a hitter is able to make a correct prediction of a pitch and seeing first-hand their brain’s reaction time will identify specific training opportunities.  Step two is to use a pitch simulation tool to see hundreds of pitches, measuring performance improvement in accuracy and speed.
“Knowing the neural circuits involved in the rapid decision-making that occurs in baseball opens up the possibility for players to train themselves using their own neural signatures,” concluded Sajda.
Tony Gwynn, another Hall of Famer known for studying video of opposing pitchers, would have appreciated this technology twenty years ago when facing Maddux. “He’s like a meticulous surgeon out there...he puts the ball where he wants to," remembered Gwynn. "You see a pitch inside and wonder, 'Is it the fastball or the cutter?' That's where he's got you.”

Why The Best Soccer Players Are Real Head Turners


In soccer, like many sports, the goal scorers get the headlines. Yet, they will secretly admit that the final pass played to them is very often their key to unlock the defense. Without the vision of a teammate to pick them out of a crowd, their finishing skill is almost useless.
As players progress through the ranks of high school, college and beyond, not only do their opponents get quicker with their feet but also with their eyes and brains.  Their time with the ball gets shorter forcing them to either make the correct pass or avoid the oncoming defender.  The luxury of time to survey the field for targets after they receive the ball is now gone.  The available options need to be gathered and assessed constantly so that when the ball arrives at their feet, the homework is already done.
So, what do top players do differently that makes their decisions consistently fast and correct?  Geir Jordet, a professor at the Norwegian School of Sport Sciences, specializes in perceptual expertise in soccer.  At last month’s MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, he presented new research on what he describes as “the hidden foundation of field vision.”
From previous studies, Jordet knew the importance of visual search strategies in soccer decision making.  However, the typical methods used to test a player’s perception seemed artificial.  Whether it be putting athletes in simulated field situations in a lab or merely relying on a computer joy stick movement, Jordet knew he needed to make the tests more realistic.
“These (lab-based) tasks do not simulate the functional links between perception and natural movements, which may be essential to capture, if the goal is to reveal knowledge about real-game visual perception,” he wrote.
So, he went back to just being a fan and admiring the sport’s best players.  Using SkySport’s Player Cam broadcasts (now discontinued) of English Premier League games, he and his research team could watch isolations of a single player in one screen, while seeing the entire game context on another screen (see image below).
“Such video footage makes it possible to examine how players engage in visual exploratory behaviors by moving their bodies and heads to better perceive events taking place behind their backs,” said Jordet.
From 64 different games, they watched the habits of 118 of the world’s best players to detect the clues they leave on the field during 1,279 actual game situations.  Jordet’s hypothesis was that those players who engaged in the most active search of their surroundings before they received the ball would produce the highest percentage of successful passes once they received possession. He defined an active search as the player turning their gaze and head away from the ball to prepare themselves by trying to pick-up as much information about the positions and movement of teammates and opponents.
Dividing the total exploratory events (turning the head) by the seconds of each scenario yields an average exploration frequency.  Not surprisingly, the two EPL players, Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard, with the highest frequency rates of .62 searches per second are two of the most successful midfielders currently playing in the league.
In this video clip, watch (and try to count) the number of times Lampard moves his head while waiting for the ball:

When the player received an incoming pass, it was noted if he was able to complete the next pass successfully, especially if it was a forward pass in the direction of his opponent’s goal. A better search should yield better information which should improve the completion percentage of the next pass.
Sure enough, Jordet found a direct correlation between higher exploration frequency and pass completion rates.  Players with exploration frequency below .2 only completed 54% of their passes while those with more than .41 explorations per second had pass completion rates of 73% or higher.
As the research team notes, counting head turns still doesn’t tell us anything about what the player actually saw during those quick glimpses.  It seems they are able to put pieces of the puzzle together with each glance, allowing their brain to assemble the big picture.
“The findings can have major implications for both what scouts look for in players and for how coaches work to improve players’ receiving and passing skills,” concluded Jordet.
In Gerrard's case, this search habit pays off in creating scoring chances, especially in the final attacking third of the field.  The always useful website, EPL Index, just updated their analysis of the top EPL players this season, in these two categories.  As expected, Gerrard appeared in the top five of each ranking (see charts).

As Xavi, Barcelona’s midfield maestro, explains, “Think quickly, look for spaces. That's what I do: look for spaces. All day. I'm always looking. All day, all day. Here? No. There? No. People who haven't played don't always realise how hard that is. Space, space, space. I think, the defender's here, play it there. I see the space and pass. That's what I do.”

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Making Decisions While Avoiding The Sack

Geno Smith
Just ask the primary decision makers across different sports.  Quarterbacks, point guards, or midfielders would agree that making the right choices during a game would be a whole lot easier if it weren’t for the constant distractions.  

Whether it be a blitzing linebacker or a 1v1 defender, staying focused on the next decision seems like an sequential process; something that can’t be dealt with until the current distraction is neutralized.  However, researchers from Carnegie Mellon University have learned that our multitasking brains continue to mull impending decisions in the background while our conscious brain handles the noise in front of us.

Picture a quarterback walking to the line of scrimmage with the play he called in the huddle.  Based on the defense he sees in front of him, he is processing his receiver options, searching for a correct decision.  After the snap of the ball, that thought process is interrupted by two linebackers bursting through the line.  First, deal with the distraction and avoid the sack.  Second, reengage the prior decision tree to find the open receiver.  To our QB, this seems like a serial event, but David Creswell, assistant professor of psychology at CMU, showed that it’s actually a parallel process in our brains.
Using neuroimaging tools, his team watched the brains of 27 adults while they were gathering information to make a decision.  They noted that the visual and prefrontal cortices, areas of the brain known for decision making, were active when the volunteers were learning new information and considering options.  Just before they were asked to make a decision, they were distracted with having to memorize sequences of numbers, which involves other areas of the brain.
What they found was that even during the distraction, the participants’ visual and prefrontal cortices remained active, still working unconsciously on the decision task.  In fact, the group that endured the distractions did just as well at making the right decision as a control group that was not distracted.
In this video, Creswell and co-author James Bursely explain their experiment:

"This research begins to chip away at the mystery of our unconscious brains and decision-making," said Creswell. "It shows that brain regions important for decision-making remain active even while our brains may be simultaneously engaged in unrelated tasks. What's most intriguing about this finding is that participants did not have any awareness that their brains were still working on the decision problem while they were engaged in an unrelated task."
The study was just published in the journal "Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience."
Now, the use of background processing by the brain should not be confused with intuition, made popular by Malcolm Gladwell’s book, Blink.  More formally known as our adaptive unconscious, Gladwell focused on our perceived ability to make snap judgements without really understanding how we arrived at our conclusion.
When under fire during a game, athletes may well be making very quick decisions without the luxury of time to analyze all the information.  Experience and practice helps build those automatic responses.  Those players with a richer database of solutions should see more accurate knee jerk responses when needed.
Most likely, what helps elite athletes come through in a clutch is a combination of real-time, background processing and a honed intuition gained from experience.

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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How Cristiano Ronaldo Sees The Ball



foto Cristiano Ronaldo
Last year, the Spanish newspaper Marca revealed the nicknames that Real Madrid players have given each other inside the Santiago Bernabéu locker room.  While some names poked fun at a player’s appearance (“Nemo” for Mesut Özil’s bulging eyes), superstar Cristiano Ronaldo was simply known as “la máquina”, Spanish for “the machine.”  With his humanoid robot physique and his superior speed and quickness, Ronaldo seems to be programmed for goal scoring.
Indeed, sponsor Castrol has developed a self-proclaimed documentary, “Ronaldo – Tested To The Limit”, to attempt to explain the Portuguese player’s body strength, mental ability, technique and skill.  The most interesting of the four segments, mental ability, helps us realize that without the command center of the brain, the machine-like body parts are useless.
While physical attributes such as strength, speed, agility and power are necessary for athletic greatness, sport skill begins with evaluating the playing environment, taking in cues and making decisions through sensory input and perception.  Vision supplies 80-90% of the information athletes use to plan their motor skill movement.

Surrounded by sports scientists and testing equipment at a Madrid soundstage, Ronaldo was asked to perform two experiments that showcase his visual perception skills of gaze control and spatial awareness.

First, his challenge was to keep the ball away from an opponent for at least 5 seconds in a 1v1 drill.  While his opponent was a former Division One player, Andy Ansah, there was no doubt Ronaldo would succeed in keeping possession.  The insight came from both players wearing eye tracker equipment that can later show the gaze or saccadic movements of their eyes.  Elite athletes have more sophisticated patterns of cues that they watch for and focus on to beat their opponents versus novice players that gaze at many focal points.
Professor Joan Vickers at the University of Calgary is best known for her pioneering work in athlete eye tracking and working with coaches and players to develop strategies and logic of what they should be looking at during competition.  For example, hockey or soccer goalies should focus on the shooter’s hips or body angle rather than the puck or ball.


Cristiano Ronaldo
Through the eye tracking video, Ronaldo’s opponent, Ansah, looked mostly at the ball and the feet but his eyes darted in a less defined pattern.  Ronaldo, on the other hand, clearly had a strategy of watching Ansah’s hips and space around Ansah that he could exploit.  His command of the ball at his feet allowed him to only occasionally check its position.  This superior spatial awareness allows great players to watch their opponent and react to the slightest hints of their next movement.thlete eye tracking and working with coaches and players to develop strategies and logic of what they should be looking at during competition.  For example, hockey or soccer goalies should focus on the shooter’s hips or body angle rather than the puck or ball.
Another aspect of visual perception in many sports is to track a moving object.  An outfielder racing to catch a fly ball, a tennis player returning a 100 mph serve, or a soccer striker taking a one-time shot of a well-crossed ball all require a sophisticated, yet mostly subconscious, skill to intercept the object’s path and act on it.
To show that most of this task is calculated in the brain rather than simply with the eyes, Ronaldo was asked to do something he is paid very well to do, finish off a crossed ball into the goal.  However, to make it more interesting, during the ball’s flight to Ronaldo, the lights were turned off inside the arena forcing the player to calculate the final flight trajectory of the ball and make contact with it in the dark.
Just as a baseball hitter only gets about ¼ of a second to decide to swing at a 90 mph pitch (and can rarely “see” the ball all the way across the plate), an athlete often relies on his brain to complete the 3D scenario and rapidly predict the path of the flying object.
Cristiano Ronaldo
As seen in the video, the first two crosses are “easily” finished off by Ronaldo when he is allowed to see about half the ball’s flight towards him.  The real expertise is shown when the room goes dark immediately after Ansah kicks the ball.  The only cues available to Ronaldo are angles and movement of Ansah’s hips and legs to predict where the ball will end up.  Not only did he meet the ball but added a bit of Portuguese style by using his shoulder to finish the goal.
There has been some debate over the years on how exactly humans track moving objects.  Several studies and theories have looked at the movement of baseball outfielders as they follow a fly ball off the bat.  The late Seville Chapman, a physicist at Stanford, developed the Optical Acceleration Cancellation (OAC) theory that argues a fielder must keep moving to keep the rising ball at a certain angle to him. If he moves forward too much, the ball will rise too fast and land behind him.  If he mistakenly moves backward, the ball’s angular flight will drop below 45 degrees and land in front of him.  By keeping a constant angle to the ball through its flight, the fielder will end up where the ball does.
Subconsciously, Ronaldo may be using the OAC theory to start moving towards the ball based on its early trajectory, then computes the rest of the flight in the dark.  The advanced skill of predicting the path of the ball instantly after the kick puts Ronaldo into a world class category.

High School Athletes Think Differently

Liverpool soccerIt seems so easy sitting in the stands. Watching their high school athlete, parents are perplexed when bad decisions are made on the field, not to mention at home and school.

What seems so logical to coaches and fans, especially over the age of 30, is often lost on the adolescent brains of prep players. Do they just not care? Will it take even more practice and drills to get it right? Could it be teenagers are just wired differently? According to a social cognition expert, that’s exactly what’s happening.

Traditional child development theory takes us from birth to the beginning of the awkward years that are triggered by the physical changes of puberty. While research on teenagers has documented their increased risk-taking behavior, the complicated reasons why adolescents think differently are still being discovered.

"The idea that the brain is somehow fixed in early childhood, which was an idea that was very strongly believed up until fairly recently, is completely wrong,” claims Sarah-Jayne Blakemore, Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience at University College London, in a recent interview at Edge.org. “There's no evidence that the brain is somehow set and can't change after early childhood. In fact, it goes through this very large development throughout adolescence and right into the 20s and 30s.”

Blakemore’s lab at UCL has been studying what they call the “social brain” or how we learn to understand and interact with other people. What better place for improved connections with those around you than on the playing field? As a team battling against an opponent, players become connected and feed off of not only the tactical play of others but the emotional ups and downs of the game.

As an example, take a look at the photo above of Michael Owen, back in his Liverpool days, immediately after missing a wide open goal. Instantly, Owen (lying on the ground), his teammates and just about every fan dressed in red react with an eerily similar expression. Of course, the fans in yellow, supporting the visiting team, have a completely separate reaction. Blakemore used this example in a recent TED talk titled, “The Mysterious Workings of the Adolescent Brain.” This connectedness shows our ability to instantly read the emotions of others and how our social brains react to a situation. ”The picture shows us how instinctive and automatic social responses are,” explains Blakemore. “Within a split second, everyone is doing the same thing with their arms and faces.”

Specifically for teenagers, this social brain development can be seen in the physiological changes their brains go through during this period. Blakemore points to an ongoing study at the National Institute of Mental Health in Bethesda where they have been performing fMRI brain scans on children, adolescents and adults over ten years. The same people return once a year for a new scan, resulting in over 8,000 scans from 2,000 people.

One of the surprising findings is that our brain’s gray matter, consisting of neuronal cell bodies, neuropil, glial cells and capillaries, grows rapidly through our childhood but then shrinks dramatically in our teen years right into our twenties. At the same time, our white matter, made up of the actual axon fiber connections between brain cells, has an offsetting increase. The white color comes from myelin, the insulating wrap around these fibers.

Through experiments in her own lab, Blakemore has identified specific brain regions that adults and teenagers use when they are thinking about other people, in other words, being social. What is surprising is that teens use more of their prefrontal cortex than adults, who use temporal regions on the sides of their brain. So, why the difference?  “That's something that we're looking at now,” responded Blakemore in the Edge interview. “One possibility is that they're using different cognitive strategies to do these tasks. They're doing the tasks, even though they're doing them as well, they're doing them in a different way. It's possible that at different ages you use different brain circuitry to perform the same task because you're using a different kind of cognitive strategy. You might, for example, when you think about social situations as an adult, you might be doing this automatically by just triggering automatically some kind of social script, whereas maybe in adolescence you're more reliant on your own experiences of these situations.”

The bottom line for coaches and parents; teenagers truly do think differently. They process social interactions with teammates and opponents on a different level than adults. There is no magic coaching philosophy or method guaranteed to succeed. However, the realization and acceptance that the teen athletic brain is evolving and growing is a start.

This article first appeared at AxonSports.com.  Join Axon Sports on Twitter and Facebook.

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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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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Is This How Barcelona's Xavi Makes Decisions?

Xavi
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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