Catching Flies And Hitting Fastballs Have A Lot In Common

Catching Flies And Hitting Fastballs Have A Lot In Common

Most baseball coaches and a few parents have learned the futility of instructing a young batter to “keep their eye on the ball.” Studies have shown that it is very difficult, if not impossible, for human eyes to track the trajectory of the pitch all the way across the plate. Even at the slower speeds of Little League pitchers, the shorter distance to the plate forces batters to pick-up early cues of the ball’s flight and speed, then make predictions of where and when it will cross the plate.  With less than a half second to to make the swing/no-swing decision, if the muscle activity isn’t triggered early in the pitch, the bat just won’t get around in time.

This time lag between incoming visual stimuli, motion planning in the brain and activation of the muscles, known as sensorimotor delay, is common throughout sports.  Think about a goalkeeper moving to stop a hockey puck or soccer ball; a tennis player returning a blistering serve; or a receiver adjusting to the flight of a football.  Their eyes tell them the speed and path of the object they need to intercept, then their brain instructs the body to move in the predicted path to arrive just in time.

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Have Patience With Your Young Athlete: The Science Of Delayed Remembering

Have Patience With Your Young Athlete: The Science Of Delayed Remembering

It’s been a few years since I last coached little tykes but I do remember that every practice required creative, devious ways to hold their attention while trying to teach them the finer points of the game, like who’s on their team and the general direction that the ball should travel for us to win.  There would be small glimmers of understanding during a drill only to have them evaporate during a scrimmage. 

Unfortunately, researchers at Ohio State University were not there to educate me on a concept known as “delayed remembering” that allows kids to remember a new topic better several days after it was first learned. Their newly released study details just how this works.

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Learning A New Sport Skill Is Just Trial And Error For Your Brain

Learning A New Sport Skill Is Just Trial And Error For Your Brain

Just about every coach and parent, not to mention most young athletes, have heard the vague but obvious phrase, “practice makes perfect.” Quarterbacks wanting to complete more passes need to throw a lot more balls. Rising basketball players who need to increase their free throw percentage need to shoot hundreds of free throws. 

In most cases, repeating a motor skill over and over in slightly different environments and conditions will improve the success rate. If not, we would all still struggle with tying our shoes or riding a bike.

But what is it about practice that helps our brains figure out the specific task while also generalizing enough to transfer the skill to different scenarios? Kicking a football through the uprights of a goal post is slightly different than kicking a soccer ball into a goal but we didn’t have to completely relearn the kicking task when switching between the two sports. Researchers at McGill University took another step forward in understanding how the trial and error of practice teaches our brain to perform these complex sports skills.

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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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Mirror Neurons Help You Avoid Broken Ankles

Across just about every team sport, young defenders are coached how to read an opponent’s body cues to avoid being caught out of position.  Whether in hockey, basketball, soccer or football, if a player can learn to focus on a consistent center point, like the chest, he can take away the offensive attacker’s element of surprise.  As with most skills, this takes time to master, but new research shows that experience does matter.

Watching players develop in practice and games offers a subjective view of their learning curve, but what would put any doubt to rest would be to actually peer inside their brains to monitor their progress.  That’s exactly what sports psychologist Dan Bishop did in his lab at the Centre for Sports Medicine and Human Performance at Brunel University in London.

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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.”

Medical Moneyball - The Rise Of Injury Analytics

Robert Griffin III
What if?  It’s a question that many of the world’s top teams asked in the last year when faced with ill-timed injuries to key players.  What if Derrick Rose of the Chicago Bulls, Robert Griffin III of the Redskins, Derek Jeter of the Yankees or Lionel Messi of Barcelona could have avoided their season ending injuries?  

Some are just the result of unlucky, violent contact but others have their origin from a combination of fatigue and overuse.  What if athletic trainers and team physicians could find early clues and signals that an athlete was at risk of breaking down?  Now, with the use of data analytics, that crystal ball may have finally arrived.

Stan Conte, VP of medical services for the Los Angeles Dodgers, 
declared last year, "in a post-Moneyball world, injury risk assessment is the final frontier."  At this year’s Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, he presented some surprising data to reinforce the rising toll of injuries;  just over 50% of all starting pitchers in the MLB had some type of injury during last season, lasting an average of 65 days on the disabled list.  Across all MLB players in 2012, the salaries of injured players plus the players that replaced them cost their teams almost $600 million.

Even at the Olympics, the world’s premier athletic showcase, the impact of injuries is significant.  Big names like Paula Radcliffe, Asafa Powell, and Rafael Nadal could not complete their gold medal quest.  Lars Engebretsen, a physician and professor at the University of Oslo and chief physician of the Norwegian Olympic team, has been tracking injuries and illness at the Games for over a decade.  His latest report, released this month on the 2012 London Olympics, recorded 1,361 injuries and 758 illnesses among the 10,568 athletes, which equates to injury and illness rates of 11% and 7%, respectively.  Unfortunately, these percentages are similar with the last two Summer Olympics in Beijing and Athens, highlighting the lack of progress in reducing lost time in competition.

In this Scientific American graphic, Engebretsen’s data from the 2008 Summer Olympics and the 2010 Winter Olympics shows that overuse caused 22% of summer athletes' injuries while 54% of winter athletes were injured in training.

Like the Dodgers, teams across the globe are beginning to search for answers.  As Big Data creeps into all aspects of athlete development, injury analytics is the new secret weapon.  That is what pushed the Leicester Tigers rugby union club to dig into the details.  Leicester, 9-time English champions, faces the challenge of tight budgets that requires keeping the best players on the field.

According to Andy Shelton, Leicester’s head of sports science, strength and conditioning, any competitive edge is worth the investment.  "It gets more competitive every year and our focus must be on helping our players stay injury-free for longer," he told the BBC. "When we have our key players available against the top European sides, we can compete and we will win, so the question is how do we keep key players on the pitch?"

Metrifit Predictive Analytics
Factoring in variables like fatigue, stress, sleep and training intensity into a predictive algorithm can yield what may have been hidden trends and combinations that cause injuries. 

“Similarly we also collect data on previous injuries that they had and what they are doing in the gym, ­basically everything they do from when they walk in the door of the club in the morning and leave in the evening is collected,” Shelton added. “The aim is to be able to affect a player’s lifestyle through the week. For example, if they recorded a very good night’s sleep, then their risk of injury could go down from ‘predicted injured’ to ‘not-predicted injured.’”

Some coaches and trainers still feel that using predictive analytics to create an injury model based on volumes of underlying data seems a little over the top.  But if your job is to develop healthy, productive athletes that win, then any tool that provides an edge is worth a look.

"Traditional baseball types tell me to just give up, that this is a waste of time because injuries are mostly bad luck,” Conte commented. "Twenty-five years ago no one listened to Bill James either."

Andy Shelton agrees, "There is no point in collecting stats unless you can know what to do with it. But by predicting things before they happen is where we can make gains, and considerably enhance performance."

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.

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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Thinking Faster Wins Olympic Medals For Brazil Volleyball

Brazil women volleyball players
Think of Brazil, then think of a sport.  Most of us would respond with soccer, or “futebol” in Portuguese, thanks to their five World Cup victories and national obsession with the sport.

However, over the last 12 years, Brazilian volleyball has dominated the world.  The men’s national team is currently ranked first in the world and has won a gold and two silver medals in the last three Olympics.  The women’s team has back to back Olympic gold medals, beating the U.S. in Beijing and London, and is currently ranked second in the world.
So, when University of Illinois psychology professor Arthur Kramer and his research team wanted to find out more about how elite athletes take in and process visual information, it wasn't surprising that he and his team visited the starting place for all aspiring Brazilian netters, the Center for the Development of Volleyball (CDV – Saquarema), in Rio de Janeiro.
Arthur Kramer
Arthur Kramer
Heloisa Alves
Heloisa Alves
There he and graduate student Heloisa Alves found 87 of the best men and women players, both adults and juniors, including some of those Olympic medalists, to test their visual and cognitive abilities.  The adult players were in their early 20’s with an average of 10 years of volleyball training.  With an average age of 16, the junior players had received about 5 years of formal training.  For comparison, 67 non-athletes with similar ages and general education were used as a control group.
There are two competing schools of thought for studying the cognitive differences between athletes and non-athletes; the expert performance approach and the component skills approach.  Research using the expert performance method tries to look at mental tasks using sport-specific domains.  For example, to see if an elite volleyball player has better peripheral vision than an amateur, they might be asked to view a volleyball court with moving players while being tested on their reaction time to changes.  Sport scientists feel this is a more relevant test of differences gained by years of training.
The component skills approach removes the sports context from the experiment and tries for a more general comparison of perceptual and cognitive tasks.  This helps to find out if the athlete’s advantage is at a core, fundamental level, not influenced by a sports environment.
Kramer’s team, using a computer based set of tests, chose the component skills method with three main cognitive categories included; executive control, memory and visuo-spatial.  First, in this context, executive control means being able to keep two different tasks and instructions in mind and switching back and forth between them, similar to being able to switch between an offensive and defensive mindset during a volleyball match.  Also, the players were tested on being able to quickly stop a task when new information popped up.  On the court, think of having a play or counterattack in mind, then having to instantly change that plan based on the other team’s actions.
Next, short term memory was tested by first showing a group of shapes, followed by just one shape. The test group had to quickly decide if that single shape was in the original group.  Finally, their spatial awareness was put to the test by seeing a series of different, frequently changing scenes and being asked to quickly detect and track the changes.
As expected, the results showed that the elite players, both adult and juniors, were better than the control group on all but one of the tests.  Their ability to switch between tasks, store objects in memory and track moving objects were significantly better than the non-athletes.  While past research had shown signs of this superiority, Kramer’s experiment was important because it expanded the results to a larger test pool, including men and women and different age group/training levels.
In fact, the women athletes performed just as well as the men athletes, which is interesting since non-athlete men easily outperformed non-athlete women.

“We found that athletes were generally able to inhibit behavior, to stop quickly when they had to, which is very important in sport and in daily life, “ Kramer said. “They were also able to activate, to pick up information from a glance and to switch between tasks more quickly than nonathletes.”
Of course, the gold medal question is if athletes are better because of their training or because of some innate advantage they’ve had since birth?  The Brazilian volleyball program hopes to answer this over time by taking baseline tests of kids in school before they are exposed to the years of structured training.
Kramer’s educated bet is on a combination. “Our understanding is imperfect because we don’t know whether these abilities in the athletes were ‘born’ or ‘made,’ ” he said. “Perhaps people gravitate to these sports because they’re good at both. Or perhaps it’s the training that enhances their cognitive abilities as well as their physical ones. My intuition is that it’s a little bit of both.”
With the 2016 Olympics on home court in Rio de Janeiro, the Brazilians are gearing up for what could be their best Games ever and a three-peat for the women.

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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.

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.

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Young Sports Stars Score With A Growth Mindset

Amazing young athletes have been going viral lately.  Did you see the video of the 11-year-old star of the Downey Christian high school varsity basketball team, who recently performed at halftime of an Orlando Magic game?  How about the 9-year-old girl running around and over the boys in her youth football league, who was invited to sit next to NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell at last month’s Super Bowl?  Then there’s the 10th grader who is currently starting for the Erie Otters, a major junior hockey team with an average age of 19, whose agent is Hall of Famer Bobby Orr and who NHL star Sidney Crosby compares to himself.

These young YouTube sensations, Julian NewmanSam Gordon and Connor McDavid, have all been dealing with the crush of recent media attention thanks to their incredible athletic skills.  Certainly, there are more like them across the country waiting to be discovered, but the stories of these three give us a chance to look behind the highlights for similarities and clues of early athletic achievement.  According to two new studies, it is all about their mind-set.
To most kids, making their high school varsity basketball team when they’re only in 6th grade and 4’ 5” tall would sound impossible.  Many young girls (and their parents) wouldn’t think of playing in a boys football league assuming they could never compete.  And a 16 year old hockey player is often told that the odds of him ever playing in college or the pros is a long shot unless you were born with just the right set of skills.
Carol Dweck, Stanford University psychology professor, calls this a fixed mind-set, believing that the skills you were born with define the upper limits of your success in life.  Conversely, those students with a growth mind-set are driven by their desire to learn new things and look at failure as just part of the process.  A fixed mind-set dwells on performance goals; only trying new tasks that they believe fall within their innate gifts. A growth mind-set thrives on learning goals and can’t wait to take on the next challenge even it means a struggle.
Growth Mindset - Dweck
Click to enlarge graphic
In most cases, researchers believe we can thank our parents for giving us our current mind-set.  Two new studies have confirmed that how parents praise their children can have a lasting effect on how their kids face new challenges.
Dweck and a team from Stanford, Temple and the University of Chicago videotaped mothers with their toddlers at ages 1, 2 and 3 as they accomplished everyday play activities.  Some moms used what the researchers call “person praise”, saying things like “you’re so smart” and “you’re good at hockey.”  Other moms used “process praise” with phrases like, “you figured it out” or “you learned how to make that shot.”
Five years later, the team revisited the kids and asked them if they would like to tackle some tough learning problems like math or complicated skill movements.  As expected, those kids who had been praised with fixed “you’re smart” phrases were afraid to try new challenges in fear they would fail, ruining their reputation for being “smart.”  On the other hand, process-praised children took on the new tasks knowing their only failure would be to not try.
“What we found was that the greater proportion of process praise, the more likely the child was to have a mindset five years later that welcomed challenges and that represented traits as malleable, not a label you were stuck with,” Dweck said. “'You're great, you're amazing' – that is not helpful. Because later on, when they don't get it right or don't do it perfectly, they'll think they aren't so great or amazing."
Their research was just published in the journal, Child Development.
Praising the wrong way seems intuitive to most parents.  In a similar experiment, Dutch researchers asked 357 adults to write down the encouragement that they would give to six different children, three with high self-esteem and three with low self esteem, for completing an activity.  Sample descriptions of the hypothetical kids were either, "Lisa usually likes the kind of person she is” or "Sarah is often unhappy with herself.”
The adults used person praise twice as often as process praise for the low-esteem children.  "Adults may feel that praising children for their inherent qualities helps combat low self-esteem, but it might convey to children that they are valued as a person only when they succeed," lead author Eddie Brummelman of Utrecht University said. "When children subsequently fail, they may infer they are unworthy."
Eduardo Briceño, Co-Founder and CEO of Mindset Works, a company that helps schools and teachers adopt the growth mind-set, explains Dweck’s research in this recent TED talk:

Connor McDavid clearly has a growth mind-set.  Sherry Bassin, general manager of the Otters, described McDavid’s attitude in a recent USA Today article, “First guy on the ice for practice, last guy off. He just loves it. He's like those doctors who can't leave the hospital for 18 hours. He is honing his skills like a top surgeon."
As for Julian and Sam, if they see walls in front of them, they have learned to either dribble or sprint around them.

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From The Talent Code To The Secret Race - A Conversation With Daniel Coyle

Daniel Coyle
It has been a busy month for Daniel Coyle. When you co-write the definitive book that tells the inside story of how a 7-time Tour de France champion cheated his way to the top step of the Champs-Élysées podium, your life becomes a little hectic. Coyle helped Tyler Hamilton, long-time teammate of Lance Armstrong, document the incredible details of the United States Postal Service racing team during Armstrong’s seemingly invincible years in their book, "The Secret Race". 

From CNN to Charlie Rose to the Today show, Hamilton and Coyle have helped audiences understand the background and motivation that led to the ultimate confessional last week; Lance the Sinner telling all to Mother Oprah.

The side benefit for Coyle to all of this media exposure is the realization of viewers that he writes about topics other than cycling and doping.  Well known in the coaching and education communities for his New York Times bestseller, "The Talent Code", and its follow-up "The Little Book of Talent", he is the voice of the growing belief that you are not necessarily just the genetic product of your parents' athletic or artistic skills.  Practice does matter and practice can provide a path to improvement, if not complete mastery.

Despite his whirlwind month, Dan was kind enough to discuss this new paradigm in sports training and the process of becoming great.  I hope you enjoy the highlights of our conversation.
First, what was your biggest takeaway from the sad but intriguing story of Lance Armstrong’s journey?

Daniel Coyle: “For one of my previous books, I spent two years in Girona, Spain, the home of the USPS team, during a Tour de France season.  While you knew when Armstrong was in town, there was always this secretiveness to his existence.  He was known as Batman for the way people would catch occasional glimpses of him in public.”
“Cycling is a demanding sport, but its less about motor skills and deals more with creating a rider’s engine or his power production plant.  The rider with the most energy and power would most often win the race.  Doping and other performance enhancing drugs were the next step towards producing more power. For me and many others, doping took the pure joy out of the sport and reduced it to a lab of biochemistry experiments.”

Tell us a little about your writing career to date and your dual-topics of talent development and the cycling life?

DC:  “When I was young, I wanted to be a doctor and was on the path to medical school.  However, my favorite day of the week was when Sports Illustrated would show up in my parents’ mailbox.  I became lost in the stories of sports achievement and wanted to be able to write those stories someday.”
“Later, I found out I didn’t really have the fire in the belly for medicine and was able to land a job as an intern at Outside magazine.  Back in those pre-Internet days, the writers would fax their stories in and I would type them, word for word, into the publishing system.  It gave me a chance to read a lot of great writing and taught me about story telling.”
“I was attracted to writing about great performers, whether it be athletes, business leaders or entertainers to find out how they got better at their craft.”

From your first book in 1995 about coaching baseball in the Chicago projects to your latest book, have you learned first-hand how performers and artists improve their craft?

DC: “That’s the really interesting part.  There is this great illusion of looking at performance from the outside as being easy and just a one-time journey with an end. There is no mountaintop of performance. The physics of skill do not permit coasting on a plateau.”
“I recently read a great New York Times piece about Jerry Seinfeld and his endless quest to get better as a comedian.  Whether it be Seinfeld or Albert Pujols or the great writer Philip Roth, they are all doing the same daily, humble, effortful steps to improve their craft.”
“For me, I am always trying to improve.  I have a collection of 3x5 index cards where I’ve written down great sentences from other writers as examples to learn from.”

The sub-title of of your 2009 book, The Talent Code, is “Greatness isn’t born, it's grown.  Here’s how.”  With that simple assertion, you threw yourself right in the middle of the genetics vs. practice debate of how expertise is achieved.  In the last three years, have you seen any new research or evidence that changes your opinion that training can trump innate skills?

DC: “No, if anything we’ve seen more research and support for this concept of structured, deliberate practice being able to improve performance. There is also a new language and vocabulary for talking about training that is beginning to understand the important role of the brain in learning.  The talent hotbeds that I describe in the book have already learned this concept.”
“There is a great new book, How Children Succeed, that emphasizes the role of emotional fortitude in great learners.  Character, grit, perseverance and self-control are critical to the learning curve.”

What is the role of brain research and technology in this world of performance training?

DC: “We’ve learned that brains are not static, they are in a constant process of change throughout our lives.  I like to use the analogy of re-shingling a roof.  Performers need to be always updating and reinforcing their core foundation and adding new layers of knowledge.”
“Technology tools can help to a point but we need to ask to what extent can they accurately represent the real world of sports.  Can a 2D or even 3D virtual world teach pattern recognition and spatial awareness as well as the real thing?  If we can validate the results of these new tools, it will offer a brave new world that will make training more efficient.”
“The key to all of the new cognitive research coming out will be to help coaches translate it and accept it.  The coaching culture is resistant to change and is often a one-way conversation with the athlete.  The high-performance training centers have learned this hard lesson and have adapted to this reality.”

Thanks, Dan, we're looking forward to the next step on your writing journey.
Here is a terrific little video of what you will learn in Coyle's "Little Book of Talent".

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.

Practice Really Does Change An Athlete's Brain

speed skaters
As kids, once we have mastered the complex motor skill of riding a bicycle, we’re told that its a lifelong skill that we’ll never forget.  Getting all of the moving parts of human and machine in sync with each other becomes a collective memory that can be called on from age 6 to 60.

Which is surprising, knowing that names, numbers and recent locations of car keys can be so easily forgotten.  What makes motor skills stick in our brains, ready to be called on at anytime?  According to two teams of cognitive science researchers, we can thank a property called neuroplasticity which actually changes the structure of our brain as we learn.

Much like bike riding, mastering ice skating requires some advanced balance and coordination to stay upright.  Knowing when and how much to lean to one side or the other while arms and legs are swinging is the type of parallel processing computation that human brains can handle well.Tucked underneath the larger cerebral hemispheres in the brain, the cerebellum is known to play an active role in controlling movement by taking in messages from the spinal cord, combined with signals from other parts of the brain, and coordinating the precision and timing of complex motor skills.  Damage to the cerebellum causes a lack of coordination, much like being under the influence causes someone to stagger and lose their balance.

Neuro researcher Im Joo Rhyu, from the Korea University College of Medicine, knew from prior studies that intensive motor skill training, such as juggling or basketball, resulted in physical changes in the brain as measured by functional magnetic resolution imaging (fMRI).  Now, he wanted to find out if the ability of the brain to adapt itself over time, known as neuroplasticiy, was sport-specific.  Given that the cerebellum has a right and a left hemisphere, would the physical growth in neural connections be symmetric on both sides?

His research team chose the perfect sport to investigate, speed skating.  Being able to chase opponents around a tight oval at high speeds on ice is a showcase for the cerebellum’s functions.  The key difference is that skaters always turn counterclockwise or left around the track.  Years and years of practice to perfect movement in one direction may show a growth pattern in the brain different from other sports, Rhyu hyphothesized.

So, he compared the fMRI brain scans of 16 male, professional, short-track speed skaters with the scans of 18 male, non-skaters who didn’t even exercise.  As predicted, in the experienced skaters, the right hemisphere of their cerebellums were larger than the left side.  Since the skaters only turn to the left, they spend much more time balanced on their right foot with short steps on their left.  Standing on your right foot activates the right side of the cerebellum.  In addition, learning a motor skill that requires constant visual monitoring and adjustments is also thought to occur mainly in the cerebellum’s right half.

The study appears, appropriately, in the December 2012 issue of The Cerebellum.

Size is not all that changes in the cerebellum after repeated training.  The increased network of neuron connections between brain cells also increases to the point of being noticeable on a different type of brain scan, known as diffusion tensor imaging (DTI).  Using this technology, a  research team examined experts in a different sport, karate.

“Most research on how the brain controls movement has been based on examining how diseases can impair motor skills,” said Dr Ed Roberts, from the Department of Medicine at Imperial College London, who led the study. “We took a different approach, by looking at what enables experts to perform better than novices in tests of physical skill.

They compared the punch strength of twelve karate fighters who had achieved black belt status and had an average of almost 14 years of experience with 12 control subjects who exercised regularly but had no karate training.  Karate punching is not simply a feat of raw muscular strength.  It is combination of speed and the coordination of wrist, shoulder and torso movement.

As expected, they found that the punch strength of the black belts was substantially greater than the novices.  But the DTI scan also showed something else very interesting.  The white matter of their cerebellums, which is made up of the tangled network of neuron connections carrying signals from one cell to another, was structurally different than in the beginner’s brains.

The results of the study are published in the journal Cerebral Cortex.

“The karate black belts were able to repeatedly coordinate their punching action with a level of coordination that novices can’t produce,” said Roberts.  “We think that ability might be related to fine tuning of neural connections in the cerebellum, allowing them to synchronise their arm and trunk movements very accurately.”

It is reassuring for athletes to know that all of those hours devoted to training their skills are actually reshaping and rebuilding their brain architecture.  And for us bike riders, we can understand how the skinned knees and bruised elbows we endured when the training wheels came off were worth the effort to program a skill that will last a lifetime.

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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?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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