Choose Your Words Carefully When Motivating Your Young Athletes

Choose Your Words Carefully When Motivating Your Young Athletes

Your kids want you to be proud of them. This need for a parent’s approval can be a powerful or destructive force when it comes to youth sports. When we communicate goals for our budding superstars, the wording we choose can make all the difference.  

New research out of Ithaca College shows the effect parents can have on their kids’ game-time anxiety, which can directly impact their performance and overall enjoyment of the game.

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The Subliminal Power Of Positive Cheering

Young athletes often hear phrases of encouragement like, “dig a little deeper” or “you have to want it more than they do” or, ideally, “be mentally tough.”  For most kids, these words from a coach, a parent or a teammate go in one ear and out the other. 

But, what if there was actually some scientific substance to the words?  Could the smiling, confident face of a coach delivering a pep talk actually have a subliminal effect on performance?  While the conscious brain may dismiss this positive talk, the subconscious mind may actually be putting it to work, according to new research from sports scientists at the University of Kent in England.

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Positive Self Talk Can Boost Your Athletic Endurance

It has become a tradition in football for players to hold up four fingers at the start of the 4th quarter, signifying that they need to dig deep and finish strong.  Even if their legs are dead and they’re ready to quit, they convince themselves to compete for one more quarter.  This type of self-talk motivation is used by many athletes but now its effectiveness has been supported by new research from the University of Kent.

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How "The Boys In The Boat" Beat Hitler's Germany - An Interview With Daniel James Brown

Daniel James Brown
Daniel James Brown
When you think of the 1936 Berlin Olympics, what storyline immediately comes to mind?  For most people, it is Jesse Owens winning four gold medals including a dramatic victory in the 100 m sprint with Adolf Hitler viewing from the stands.  However, Hitler also witnessed another stunning upset by an underdog American team, the 8 man rowing crew.  Even though Germany won five of the seven men's rowing events, a gritty group of students from the University of Washington came from behind to steal the gold medal at the marquee event.

Now, 77 years later, those oarsmen are finally getting their story told in a new book, The Boys in the Boat, by Daniel James Brown.

I ran across this book doing some research on Olympic sports science and was instantly sucked into its underdog beats the villain plot.  Brown has captured not only the historical set-up but the human battle and immense odds faced by the crew.  Recently, I sat down with the author to find out more about these forgotten heroes.


The Boys In The Boat
Daniel, where did you first hear about the story of the 1936 US rowing team?  Were you surprised that a book had not been written about their journey? 

Daniel James Brown - The story literally walked into the living room, in the form of Judy Willman, my neighbor. She told me that she was reading one of my previous books to her dad, who was in hospice care, living out the last few weeks of his life at her house. He'd liked the earlier book and she wondered if I would come down to meet him. I went down to Judy's house a few days later and met her father, who turned out to be Joe Rantz, the number seven man in the 1936 US Olympic eight-oar crew. 

As Joe began to tell me about that I was absolutely mesmerized by the tale. It wasn't just that he and his crew mates had beaten a German boat to win gold in front of Hitler. It was the whole scope of the story--the long hard saga these working class kids from the American West had undertaken to become, arguably, the greatest collegiate crew of all time. It involved enormous physical and psychological stress, moments of devastating set back, moments of great triumph. And it was all set against the backdrop of the Great Depression. Joe's personal story--his loss of his mother, his ill treatment at the hands of his stepmother, his abandonment by his family, his struggles to simply survive gave the story an added dimension of drama and heart. By the time that first conversation was over I knew I had stumbled across the kind of story all writers dream of finding. 

Looking back at the 1936 Olympics, everyone knows the story of Jesse Owens vs. Hitler's men but few have heard the story of the men's eights crew.  Why do you think that is?

DJB - The larger story has long been known to quite a few Seattlelites, at least those of a certain age. But that's not true nationally. For the most part I think the very existence of this crew and the remarkable sequence of events that led them to Berlin and the gold medal are still going to be news to most Americans. I think that's partly because the Jesse Owens story so dominated the popular imagination in the summer of 1936 that some of the other remarkable things that happened in Berlin--including the remarkable eight-oar crew race--went largely unreported, at least nationally.

Also, I think as Americans we tend to like to celebrate individual achievements, and certainly Jesse's Olympics fit the bill in that regard. They rightly have become part of the American mythos--they help define who we are and what we value--equality, fair play, equal opportunity. I actually think the story of the 1936 Olympic eight [man rowing team] does a similar thing, though it approaches the question from a different angle. 

No sport demands such an extreme degree of cooperation as crew. Every detail of every stroke has to be synchronized across eight oars, and it has to happen over and over again in rapid succession. Championship crews have to become one, single entity. Each individual oarsman or oarswoman has to subsume his or her individual ego to the common effort. And in that sense, I think the story of the 1936 crew illustrates what Americans can do when they join in a common effort, when they literally climb in a boat and pull together. Like the Jesse Owens story, it helps define who we are when we are at our best.


Today's Olympics world is dominated by sports science, full-time athletes and major government/private funding.  Would Joe Rantz, the hero of the gold medal crew, be able to realize his dream today?

DJB - Boy, that's a tough one. I suspect he might not. Like all the other boys in the boat he was just a working class kid. A local farm boy, basically. When he wasn't rowing he was having to make his way in the world, cutting hay, digging ditches, and literally foraging in the woods for food at times. He wouldn't have had time to work out on erg machines, nor the nutrition to build up the kind of massive body strength of today's oarsmen. (Male oarsmen of his day and age tended to be skinny beanpoles, maybe 175 pounds and 6'2". Today the average is probably closer to 200 pounds). 

He wouldn't have known what his VO2 max was. He didn't face competition from recruits from all over the world, nor even other American kids on full ride scholarships. There was no such thing as a rowing scholarship at Washington in 1933.  But for character, for sheer guts and drive, I think he--and all the other boys in that boat--would have stood out as exceptional today.

Our blog is about the cognitive side of sports; how your brain enables you to compete.  Are the mental aspects of rowing purely motivational or are there cognitive skills and strategies necessary to win?

DJB - There's a huge motivational component. It's a downright brutal sport, so you certainly have to be enormously tough mentally to undertake it on the level of an Olympic contender. But yes, there is also a huge array of cognitive skills that have to be mastered. The sport isn't one of simple brawn by any means; it has much more to do with fine tuning every movement you make to get the maximum amount of drive out of a given expenditure of energy. That means constant attention to very small details of technique, and the mental acuity to keep all those details in mind as you repeat the stroke at varying levels of intensity over and over again. 

There is also the matter of meshing mentally with the other seven people wielding oars. That in itself requires a good deal of mental dexterity. I think one of the most interesting parts of the sport, though, is the kind of mental chess game that goes on among coxswains in a race. There is only so much muscle power, energy, and stamina in even the best boats. The coxswain always has the problem of how and more importantly when to use turn all that power loose. Do it too early and his crew will burn out before the finish line; do it too late and they will never catch up in time. So coxswains keep wary eyes on one another throughout a race trying to guess when the others are going to make their move. Getting that right, along with knowing your crew and knowing the capabilities of the crews in the other boats are absolutely key to winning crew races. 

Every ounce of weight in a boat has to be justified by it's output, and a lot of coaches think the three pounds or so of gray matter in their coxswains' heads are the most important pounds in the boat.

Finally, what can you tell us about the upcoming movie adaptation directed by Kenneth Branagh?

DJB - Well it looks as if the project is on track, though it's always hard to predict what will come out of Hollywood and when.  The Weinstein Company just recently went ahead and exercised their option to fully purchase the film rights, and they have been working with a scriptwriter for several months now. I met recently with the writer and he has some terrific ideas for how to develop the story on film, so I'm very optimistic that when the film arrives on the big screen it will do the boys and their story justice. it's hard to imagine a more compelling climax to a film than eight hearty young American men driving toward the finish line, rowing stroke for stroke with a Nazi crew with swastikas on their chests as Adolf Hitler watches from a nearby balcony and the crowd screams "Deutschland! Deutschland! Deutschland!"

Thank you Daniel for your time and a great book!

To Know Where You're Going, You Have To Know Where You've Been


What happened out there? You thought you were ready. You thought your training went well last week. You thought your pre-competition routine was the same as always. Now you’re wondering why you hit the wall early and just had an off day. 

Consistently performing at a high level depends on creating the right combination and pattern of training that yields the best outcome. Even a small change to that ideal routine can result in a poor performance. Finding that wrong turn requires retracing your steps through your recent training sessions.

Unfortunately, many athletes lack a system to capture not only the quantitative data but also the qualitative information about their mood, motivation and daily activities that may have affected their results. In all of the noise of today’s high-tech monitoring devices, the simplicity of a training diary often gets overlooked.

So, what exactly is a training diary? It can range from a paper notebook with an athlete’s thoughts about the day’s practice to a sophisticated, online app. For either version, the key ingredient is consistent and accurate data. Without an athlete or coach entering data, the diary is like staring at a map with no roads.

Recently, human performance researchers at Dublin City University (DCU) studied the effectiveness of using training diaries for young Gaelic footballers as a way to assess their overall training load. Without proper management of their time and activities, young athletes can suffer burnout from overtraining.

Siobhán O’Connor, a researcher and graduate student at DCU, and Professor Noel McCaffrey gathered 162 players from U14, U18 and adult teams to measure not only the response of players to using a diary, either paper-based or online, but also to validate that what the players self-reported was an accurate reflection of their actual training.

Previous research has shown that athletes prefer easy and efficient data entry for a diary to succeed. O’Connor designed a format that, on average, took the players just under 4 minutes per day to fill out. Initially, the paper and online versions received about the same participation rate but when e-mail or text reminders were sent out for the online version, the players use of the online version increased substantially.

Filling diaries with the right information is just as important as timeliness. As they say in the computer world, “garbage input produces garbage output.” To check this, a subset of the players also wore accelerometers and/or SenseCams to objectively capture data about the training sessions. When this data was compared with what the players actually recorded in their diaries, there was a 95% agreement, confirming that the players could accurately self-report their own data.

O’Connor is encouraged by the results, “This study will benefit Gaelic Footballers throughout Ireland and beyond by enabling them to quantify their training load in a quick and easy manner.”

Although training diaries were initially designed with amateur or semi-professional sports enthusiasts in mind, online diaries combined with communication portals are being utilized more and more by professional organizations and elite athletes.

Of course, the payoff for athletes to entering this information is being able to quickly review the data and ensure consistent performance improvement. That’s where online diaries shine, especially those that can analyze the data and identify cause and effect patterns. Being able to understand how your daily habits contribute to your results makes it all worthwhile.

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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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NBA Fans Hurt Their Home Team's Free Throws

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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








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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Beanball Retaliations Rise With The Temperature

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


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


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

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



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


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


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


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

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


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


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

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



Predicting NFL Success By What Draft Picks Say

Thankfully, the NFL Draft and all its hype is behind us.  The matchmaking is complete but the guessing game begins as to which team picked the right combination of athletic skill, mental toughness and leadership potential in their player selections.  Hundreds of hours of game film can be broken down to grade performance with X’s and O’s.  Objective athletic tests at the NFL combine rank the NCAA football draftees by speed and strengths, just as the infamous Wonderlic intelligence test tries to rank their brain power.  

However, despite all of this data, coaches and general managers often point to a player’s set of fuzzy personal qualities, dubbed the “intangibles”, as the ultimate tie-breaking determinant to future success in the league.

Always looking for the edge in this crystal ball forecasting, teams are turning to other technologies and methods that have been used in related assessment arenas in business and politics.  As any good self-improvement speaker will tell you, success leaves clues.  By studying established leaders, certain traits, attitudes and themes can be identified as consistent “bread crumbs” left behind for others to follow.  In the same way, potential leaders that don’t pan out also demonstrate patterns of behavior that can be linked to their less-than-hyped performance.

Now, a new tool is available to NFL front offices and, as with many high-tech innovations, they have the U.S. military to thank.  Achievement Metrics, a risk prediction service for the sports industry, now provides speech content analysis meant to give the odds of a budding superstar either rising into a leadership role or sinking into legal trouble based on just their public comments.  Their base technology grew out of the work that their sister company, Social Science Automation, has provided to the CIA and government agencies including profiles of possible terrorists, based on their use of language.

Using only the transcripts from a player’s recent college press conferences or interviews, the company’s computer algorithms find patterns in a player’s words and phrases.  Its not just a few vocabulary no-no’s that set off the alarms, but rather a pattern of selected triggers from a “hot list” of over 2000 words.  So, unlike the Wonderlic IQ test that might allow for some pre-test cram sessions to increase the score, this analysis is much more intricate and based on an athlete’s words from the past.  And, by using just the transcripts of speech, the tone, volume and pronunciation of the words don’t matter; simply the ideas and subconscious selection of phrasing.

Combining numerical text analysis stats such as word meanings and frequency with established psychological profiling theories, players can be categorized in dimensions such as need for power, level of self-centerdness, ability to affect destiny and many more.

Currently, the database includes an analysis of 592 NFL players’ speech patterns matched with their off-field behavior, both positive and negative, with a correlation algorithm.  As much as this seems like a scene from Minority Report and the fictional “Pre-Crime” department, the accuracy of the results are impressive, according to the company website:

-  89 percent (89 out of 100) of the players placed in the high-risk category have been arrested or suspended while in the NFL.
-  Even more striking, only 0.13 percent (two out of 1,522) of players categorized as low-risk have been arrested or suspended during their professional careers.
-  Of the players in the database who have been arrested or suspended while in the NFL, the models placed 98 percent (104 out of 106) in the intermediate- or high-risk category based on their football-related speech from college.

Below is the current scatter plot graph that shows the distribution of NFL subjects along a “bad behavior” continuum from their database.  Any college football player who ends up in Areas 3 or 4 after his speech analysis is not good news for his future employer.
 

Here is Roger Hall, Achievment Metrics’ CEO and psychologist, explaining the process at the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference held in March:

As Hall notes in his presentation, quarterbacks can have a major influence on an NFL team, so there has been much focus on the 2011 crop of draft picks and their chances of success.  Not to leave us hanging, Hall recently released the analysis of this group alongside some of the established QBs in the league.  On the Y-axis is the Positive Power score, or the level of belief in self-controlled destiny and along the X-axis is Ingroup Affiliation or the level of team orientation.  If given a choice, a team would probably prefer their prospect to be in the Aaron Rodgers/ Philip Rivers quadrant rather than the Alex Smith/Matt Leinart quadrant.


Assessing off-field risk is only the beginning for this type of analysis as long as the correlation equals causation relationship is believed and backed up with more data.  While some old school scouts and evaluators will cling to their intuitions, more forward-thinking GMs will try any new angle to get the edge.  It may just turn out to be a $20 million edge.

Coaches Can Be Moral Role Models

Highly publicized ethical lapses by sports celebrities have raised questions about morality in athletics. If coaches help their athletes achieve peak physical performance, can they also teach their sports charges to make ethical choices?

New research from Concordia University has examined how coaches exert moral influence over athletes and how athletes respond. The study garnered data from 17 elite coaches who had once been athletes themselves.

The investigation found compelling evidence that coaches can provide important moral guidance for their athletic charges. "Coaches have a unique relationship with their athletes," says Sandra Peláez, who completed the study as part of her PhD thesis at Concordia's School of Graduate Studies and Department of Exercise Science.

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

Be good or be benched
Like most people, the study found athletes receive early moral direction from their parents. Yet as athletes become more engaged in sport, coaches become their most important source of moral guidance. This may be because athletes admire and trust their coaches. It may also be because coaches have significant power to enforce their standards, if only by "benching" players who do not adhere to rules.

While study participants agreed that moral influence was an important aspect of coach-athlete relationships, they found morality hard to define. In the course of the study, four core moral values emerged. These were "elite sports involvement" (e.g. discipline), "interaction with others" (e.g. respect), "self-related" (e.g. enjoying the sport) and "game" (e.g. striving to win).

Coaches' cultural backgrounds also influenced their definitions of morality. "Cultural differences are crucial -- and this study is the first to draw attention to this important point," says Peláez. "Things that are accepted in one culture are not accepted in others. For example, in some Eastern European countries, you are either training or you are in the hospital. If you skip practice, you will be punished because it's your moral obligation to be there. It's part of your commitment to your country, your teammates and your coach."

Moral concepts inherited
The study also broke new ground by showing that coaches inherit their moral values from their own coaches. Participants discussed moral issues using what their own coaches did as their frame of reference. Whether they copied these practices or criticized them, their understanding of morality was based on what they learned from their coaches when they were athletes.

"Getting coaches to articulate how they see their role -- how they feel they can influence the process -- is important," says Simon Bacon, a professor in Concordia's Department of Exercise Science and Sandra Peláez's thesis supervisor.

"Our study results will help us develop materials to increase moral behaviours in sports settings," he continues. "Many children participate in organised sport and spend considerable time with coaches. Understanding how coaches influence moral development and ultimately build character is important to society, as it offers another way to teach moral values."

Source: Concordia University

See also: Youth Sports Coaches Should Prioritize Teaching Over Winning and For Exercise, Kids Do As Parents Say Not As They Do

Team Camaraderie Will Keep You In The Game Longer

It's never fun riding the bench -- but could it also make you less likely to be physically active in the future?  That's one of the questions being explored by Mark Eys, an associate professor of kinesiology and physical education at Wilfrid Laurier University and the Canada Research Chair in Group Dynamics and Physical Activity. Eys is presenting his work as part of this week's Canada Research Chairs conference in Toronto.

Eys, who also teaches out of the university's psychology department, is studying group cohesion -- which, in sporting terms, is essentially that sense of camaraderie that often develops between teammates -- and how it affects the willingness of teenagers to take part in physical activity long-term.  It's an important connection to study, he says, since it's much more common for people to work out in groups than on their own.

"People playing sports, for instance, are usually part of a group. If they're playing golf, they're in a group. They're often going for runs in a group," says Eys. "If we understand how those groups work, and take advantage of those situations, we can facilitate physical activity."

For the past two years, Eys and his team of graduate students have been observing teens aged 13-17 in the Sudbury area, tracking them as they take part in high school sports, rec leagues, and non-structured group activities like running and jogging.

Once a year, says Eys, they fill out questionnaires that measure how they feel about the level of cohesion in their groups. The teens taking part in highly-structured sports, particularly at the high school level, are asked specifically about their teams' focus -- how it strikes a balance between self-improvement and winning.

While they're still analyzing the first two years of data, Eys points out that, so far, they've found "a really strong relationship between that motivational climate and perceptions of cohesion."
That relationship seems to echo the findings of researchers who've posed the same questions to adults, says Eys.

"If you look at the research on adults, the link between group perceptions and cohesion is pretty clear," he says. "If people are in groups that they enjoy, they're more likely to stick to their exercise regimens."

For Eys, his research isn't purely academic -- it's also personal. A decade ago, Eys played basketball at the University of Waterloo, and in his fourth year made it to nationals. While the team didn't win, they managed to strike a near-perfect balance, he says, between competitiveness and camaraderie.

"We still, to this day -- and this is ten years after the fact -- get together as a group. It was obviously a very cohesive bunch. I don't think we were necessarily the most talented group in the league, but some of these group processes can overcome that."

Eys also has two daughters, aged six and four, who are "taking their first steps into organized activities." Researching what it is that makes a good group activity, he says, will translate into an increased likelihood that physically active kids become physically active adults.

The goal of his research is to "have something to be able to take to coaches, to be able to take to organizations" that would outline all those factors that go into a cohesive group environment. Making kids play better, may help them play longer.

Source: Canadian Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences

See also: Soccer Goal Celebrations Are Contagious and Athletes In The Zone Feel The Flow

Soccer Goal Celebrations Are Contagious

Behaviour is contagious. If you see someone yawn or smile, it's often a matter of seconds before you do the same yourself. This copying behaviour also turns out to work on the soccer pitch. "The more convincingly someone celebrates their success with their teammates, the greater the chances that team will win," according to Dr. Gert-Jan Pepping, Sport Scientist and lecturer in Human Movement Sciences at the University of Groningen.

From an evolutionary point of view, this 'contagious' behaviour is easy to explain.The ability to copy certain behaviours is important to survive in social groups. Pepping: "A good example is the behaviour of a school of fish, such as herring or sardines. Only by synchronizing with each other, that is, doing exactly the same thing as much as possible, do they increase their chances of survival." In addition, copying behaviour has another function: learning from each other. These two functions imply that we communicate individual and group aims via movement. Also emotional movement behaviour, such as cheering, can be understood in this way.

Emotions are often understood and explained in the context of what has just happened. However, emotions can also influence the future, Pepping's research has revealed. His research group investigated whether the way soccer players express their delight at a successful penalty influences the final result of a penalty shootout. Pepping: "What's nice about a penalty shootout is that the individual aim of scoring a penalty directly serves the group aim of winning the match."


Positive attitude
Pepping and his research group (Moll, Jordet, & Pepping, 2010) studied a large number of penalty shootouts during important soccer matches, but only as long as the score in the shootout was still equal. After every shot at goal, the player was assessed on the degree to which he expressed happiness and pride after scoring. This revealed that the players who expressed this clearly, for example by throwing their arms up into the air, usually belonged to the winning team. "This enthusiastic behaviour infected the team with a positive attitude. Also important, the opposing team was made to feel that little bit more insecure." In the study this latter effect was shown by the finding that when someone cheered with both arms in the air, it was more than twice as likely that the next opponent would miss his penalty.

What's very important is that the scored goal is celebrated with the people you want to infect. Pepping: "If you cheer facing the supporters after you've scored a penalty, the supporters will get wildly enthusiastic. That's all very fine, but they're not the ones who have to perform at that moment. Your team members on the pitch are. It's very important to celebrate together -- that's what makes scoring contagious."

Motivating each other
The same principle is easy to project onto situations outside the sports field, according to Pepping. Even in an office situation you can motivate each other by dwelling on a good group performance and celebrating it with each other. That means that the whole team will share the feelings of pride and confidence, which raises performance levels. However, you should be careful not to exaggerate by taking the expressions of happiness or pride out of context, according to Pepping.

In some countries people tend to react to success in a less heated way than in in others. "In the Netherlands many people seem to have forgotten how to react exuberantly." According to Pepping, if you want to increase your chances of success, both on the sports field and in daily life, it's important to 'take the brakes off'. It's natural to cheer in reaction to a victory. What's more, as revealed by the research, when individual and group interests coincide it's also a very functional reaction. More cheering means more success.

Source: University of Groningen and Tjerk Moll, Geir Jordet, Gert-Jan Pepping. Emotional contagion in soccer penalty shootouts: Celebration of individual success is associated with ultimate team success. Journal of Sports Sciences, 2010; : 1 DOI: 10.1080/02640414.2010.484068

See also: Kicking Style Of Women Soccer Players May Cause Injury and Goalkeepers Use Clues To Guess Direction Of Penalty Kick

Sports Superstitions Just Might Work

Don't scoff at those lucky rabbit feet. New research shows that having some kind of lucky token can actually improve your performance -- by increasing your self-confidence.

"I watch a lot of sports, and I read about sports, and I noticed that very often athletes -- also famous athletes -- hold superstitions," says Lysann Damisch of the University of Cologne. Michael Jordan wore his college team shorts underneath his NBA uniform for good luck; Tiger Woods wears a red shirt on tournament Sundays, usually the last and most important day of a tournament. "And I was wondering, why are they doing so?"

Damisch thought that a belief in superstition might help people do better by improving their confidence. With her colleagues Barbara Stoberock and Thomas Mussweiler, also of the University of Cologne, she designed a set of experiments to see if activating people's superstitious beliefs would improve their performance on a task.


In one of the experiments, volunteers were told to bring a lucky charm with them. Then the researchers took it away to take a picture. People brought in all kinds of items, from old stuffed animals to wedding rings to lucky stones. Half of the volunteers were given their charm back before the test started; the other half were told there was a problem with the camera equipment and they would get it back later.

Volunteers who had their lucky charm did better at a memory game on the computer, and other tests showed that this difference was because they felt more confident. They also set higher goals for themselves. Just wishing someone good luck -- with "I press the thumbs for you," the German version of crossing your fingers -- improved volunteers' success at a task that required manual dexterity.

The research is published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.

Of course, even Michael Jordan lost basketball games sometimes. "It doesn't mean you win, because of course winning and losing is something else," says Damisch. "Maybe the other person is stronger."

Source: Association for Psychological Science

See also: Athletes In The Zone Feel The Flow and Military Mindfulness Training May Also Help Athletes Handle Stress

Athletes In The Zone Feel The Flow

Robyn Beck/Getty Images
Tiger was in the zone.  On Saturday, in the third round of this year's U.S. Open, Woods made eight birdies, including five on the final nine holes, to come roaring back into contention.  "All the Opens I've won [three], I've had one stretch of nine holes," Woods said. "It doesn't have to be on a back nine or front, just a nine-hole stretch where you put it together." He knows that to win, he needs to find that "flow".

After a great performance, many athletes have described a feeling of being “in the zone.” In this state, they feel invincible, as if the game slowed down, the crowd noise fell silent and they achieved an incredible focus on their mission. What is this Superman-like state and how can players enter it when they most need it?

Like the feeling of being moved down a river by the current, this positive groove has been described as a "flow." In fact, Mihaly Csíkszentmihályi, psychology professor at Claremont Graduate University in California, coined the term in his 1990 book, “Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience” (Harper Row, 1990).

From his years of research, Csíkszentmihályi developed an entire theory around the concept and applied it not only to sports, but also to work life, education, music and spirituality.

Csíkszentmihályi identified nine components of the state of flow. The more of these you can achieve, the stronger your feeling of total control will be.

1. Challenge-skills balance is achieved when you have confidence that your skills can meet the challenge in front of you.

2. Action-awareness merging is the state of being completely absorbed in an activity, with tunnel vision that shuts out everything else.

3. Clear goals come into focus when you know exactly what is required of you and what you want to accomplish.

4. Unambiguous feedback is constant, real-time feedback that allows you to adjust your tactics. For example, fans and coaches will let you know how you're doing.

5. Concentration on the task at hand, with laser-beam focus, is essential.

6. Sense of control is heightened when you feel that your actions can affect the outcome of the game.

7. Loss of self-consciousness occurs when you are not constantly self-aware of your success.

8. Transformation of time takes place when you lose track of time due to your total focus on the moment.

9. Autotelic experience is achieved when you feel internally driven to succeed even without outside rewards. You do something because you love to do it.

Flow doesn't only happen to athletes. In any activity, when you're completely focused, incredibly productive and have lost track of time, you may be in the flow. You may not be trying to win the U.S. Open, but you can still say you are "in the zone."

See also: Tiger's Brain Is Bigger Than Ours and Tiger, LeBron, Beckham - Neuromarketing In Action

Youth Sports Coaches Should Prioritize Teaching Over Winning

Young athletes' achievement goals can change in a healthy way over the course of a season when their coaches create a mastery motivational climate rather than an ego orientation, University of Washington sport psychologists have found. A mastery climate stresses positive communication between coaches and athletes, teamwork and doing one's best. An ego climate, typified by many professional sports coaches, focuses on winning at all costs and being better than others.

"Much of life is affected by motivation and achievement," said Ronald Smith, a UW psychology professor and lead author of a new study. "Our study looked at children 9 to 13 years of age and there was no difference by age or sex. And it was also significant because it shows the influence of a mastery climate on children's achievement goals in a relatively short time, 12 weeks."

For several decades psychologists have believed that children under the age of 11 or 12 could not distinguish between effort and ability. That still may be true when it comes to academics, but the new research indicates that children as young as 9 can tell the difference between the two while participating in sports.
Frank Smoll, another UW psychology professor and co-author of the paper, said the research shows the importance of youth sport coaches at an earlier age than previously thought.  The study was recently published in the journal Motivation and Emotion.

"A coach can be the first non-parental figure who is a youngster's hero. People who volunteer to coach year after year don't affect just a few kids. They can be influencing thousands at very early ages," he said.

The study involved 243 children -- 145 boys and 98 girls -- playing basketball in two separate Seattle leagues. The athletes ranged in age from 9 to 13 and 80 percent were white. They were given questionnaires to fill out twice, once prior to the beginning of the season and again 12 weeks later when the season was almost over.

A previously published paper by the researchers from the same project showed that young athletes who played for coaches who were taught how to create a mastery climate reported lower levels of sport anxiety compared to youngsters who played for coaches who were not trained. The research also was the first to show that a coaching intervention is as effective with girls as it is with boys.

The new study found that athletes who played for coaches who used a mastery climate showed such things as greater enjoyment of basketball over the course of the season. In addition, levels of ego orientation dropped. The opposite was true for athletes playing for coaches relying on an ego-oriented style of leadership. These finding held for athletes across all ages.

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

Source: University of Washington

See also: Teaching Tactics and Techniques In Sports and Sideline Raging Soccer Moms (and Dads!) 

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Get Off The Treadmill And On The Trail

How much "green exercise" produces the greatest improvement in mood and sense of personal well-being? A new study in the American Chemical Society's semi-monthly journal Environmental Science & Technology has a surprising answer.  The answer is likely to please people in a society with much to do but little time to do it: Just five minutes of exercise in a park, working in a backyard garden, on a nature trail, or other green space will benefit mental health.

Jules Pretty and Jo Barton explain in the study that green exercise is physical activity in the presence of nature. Abundant scientific evidence shows that activity in natural areas decreases the risk of mental illness and improves the sense of well-being. Until now, however, nobody knew how much time people had to spend in green spaces to get those and other benefits.

"For the first time in the scientific literature, we have been able to show dose-response relationships for the positive effects of nature on human mental health," Pretty said.

From an analysis of 1,252 people (of different ages, genders and mental health status) drawn from ten existing studies in the United Kingdom, the authors were able to show that activity in the presence of nature led to mental and physical health improvements.
They analyzed activities such as walking, gardening, cycling, fishing, boating, horse-riding and farming. The greatest health changes occurred in the young and the mentally-ill, although people of all ages and social groups benefited. All natural environments were beneficial including parks in urban settings. Green areas with water added something extra. A blue and green environment seems even better for health, Pretty noted.
From a health policy perspective, the largest positive effect on self-esteem came from a five-minute dose.
"We know from the literature that short-term mental health improvements are protective of long-term health benefits," Pretty said. "So we believe that there would be a large potential benefit to individuals, society and to the costs of the health service if all groups of people were to self-medicate more with green exercise," added Barton.

A challenge for policy makers is that policy recommendations on physical activity are easily stated but rarely adopted widely as public policy, Pretty noted, adding that the economic benefits could be substantial.
Policy frameworks that suggest active living point to the need for changes to physical, social and natural environments, and are more likely to be effective if physical activity becomes an inevitable part of life rather than a matter of daily choice.

Source: American Chemical Society and What is the Best Dose of Nature and Green Exercise for Improving Mental Health? A Multi-Study Analysis. Environmental Science & Technology, 2010

See also: Running Addicts Need Their Fix and Barefoot Is Better

Which Comes First For Athletes - Money Or Motivation?

Whether it's for money, marbles or chalk, the brains of reward-driven people keep their game faces on, helping them win at every step of the way. Surprisingly, they win most often when there is no reward.  That's the finding of neuroscientists at Washington University in St. Louis, who tested 31 randomly selected subjects with word games, some of which had monetary rewards of either 25 or 75 cents per correct answer, others of which had no money attached.

Subjects were given a short list of five words to memorize in a matter of seconds, then a 3.5-second interval or pause, then a few seconds to respond to a solitary word that either had been on the list or had not. Test performance had no consequence in some trials, but in others, a computer graded the responses, providing an opportunity to win either 25 cent or 75 cents for quick and accurate answers. Even during these periods, subjects were sometimes alerted that their performance would not be rewarded on that trial.

Prior to testing, subjects were submitted to a battery of personality tests that rated their degree of competitiveness and their sensitivity to monetary rewards.

Designed to test the hypothesis that excitement in the brains of the most monetary-reward-sensitive subjects would slacken during trials that did not pay, the study is co-authored by Koji Jimura, PhD, a post-doctoral researcher, and Todd Braver, PhD, a professor, both based in psychology in Arts & Sciences. Braver is also a member of the neuroscience program and radiology department in the university's School of Medicine.
But the researchers found a paradoxical result: the performance of the most reward-driven individuals was actually most improved -- relative to the less reward-driven -- in the trials that paid nothing, not the ones in which there was money at stake.

Even more striking was that the brain scans taken using functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) showed a change in the pattern of activity during the non-rewarded trials within the lateral prefrontal cortex (PFC), located right behind the outer corner of the eyebrow, an area that is strongly linked to intelligence, goal-driven behavior and cognitive strategies. The change in lateral PFC activity was statistically linked to the extra behavioral benefits observed in the reward-driven individuals.

The researchers suggest that this change in lateral PFC activity patterns represents a flexible shift in response to the motivational importance of the task, translating this into a superior task strategy that the researchers term "proactive cognitive control." In other words, once the rewarding motivational context is established in the brain indicating there is a goal-driven contest at hand, the brain actually rallies its neuronal troops and readies itself for the next trial, whether it's for money or not.

The brain's lateral prefrontal cortex (in yellow) shows heightened
and long-lasting activity in people more driven by rewards,
even when a reward is not offered. (Credit: Koji Jimura)
"It sounds reasonable now, but when I happened upon this result, I couldn't believe it because we expected the opposite results," says Jimura, first author of the paper. "I had to analyze the data thoroughly to persuade myself. The important finding of our study is that the brains of these reward- sensitive individuals do not respond to the reward information on individual trials. Instead, it shows that they have persistent motivation, even in the absence of a reward. You'd think you'd have to reward them on every trial to do well. But it seems that their brains recognized the rewarding motivational context that carried over across all the trials."

The finding sheds more light on the workings of the lateral PFC and provides potential behavioral clues about personality, motivation, goals and cognitive strategies. The research has important implications for understanding the nature of persistent motivation, how the brain creates such states, and why some people seem to be able to use motivation more effectively than others. By understanding the brain circuitry involved, it might be possible to create motivational situations that are more effective for all individuals, not just the most reward-driven ones, or to develop drug therapies for individuals that suffer from chronic motivational problems.

Their results are published April 26 in the early online edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Everyone knows of competitive people who have to win, whether in a game of HORSE, golf or the office NCAA basketball tournament pool. The findings might tell researchers something about the competitive drive.

The researchers are interested in the signaling chain that ignites the prefrontal cortex when it acts on reward-driven impulses, and they speculate that the brain chemical dopamine could be involved. That could be a potential direction of future studies. Dopamine neurons, once thought to be involved in a host of pleasurable situations, but now considered more of learning or predictive signal, might respond to cues that let the lateral PFC know that it's in for something good. This signal might help to keep information about the goals, rules or best strategies for the task active in mind to increase the chances of obtaining the desired outcome.

In the context of this study, when a 75-cent reward is available for a trial, the dopamine-releasing neurons could be sending signals to the lateral PFC that "jump start" it to do the right procedures to get a reward.
"It would be like the dopamine neurons recognize a cup of Ben and Jerry's ice cream, and tell the lateral PFC the right action strategy to get the reward -- to grab a spoon and bring the ice cream to your mouth," says Braver. "We think that the dopamine neurons fires to the cue rather than the reward itself, especially after the brain learns the relationship between the two. We'd like to explore that some more."

They also are interested in the "reward carryover state," or the proactive cognitive strategy that keeps the brain excited even in gaps, such as pauses between trials or trials without rewards. They might consider a study in which rewards are far fewer.

"It's possible we'd see more slackers with less rewards," Braver says. "That might have an effect on the reward carryover state. There are a host of interesting further questions that this work brings up which we plan to pursue."


Source: Washington University in St. Louis

See also: The Big Mo' - Momentum In Sports and Tiger's Brain Is Bigger Than Ours

Military Mindfulness Training May Also Help Athletes Handle Stress

A University of Pennsylvania-led study in which training was provided to a high-stress U.S. military group preparing for deployment to Iraq has demonstrated a positive link between mindfulness training, or MT, and improvements in mood and working memory. Mindfulness is the ability to be aware and attentive of the present moment without emotional reactivity or volatility.

The study found that the more time participants spent engaging in daily mindfulness exercises the better their mood and working memory, the cognitive term for complex thought, problem solving and cognitive control of emotions. The study also suggests that sufficient MT practice may protect against functional impairments associated with high-stress challenges that require a tremendous amount of cognitive control, self-awareness, situational awareness and emotional regulation.

To study the protective effects of mindfulness training on psychological health in individuals about to experience extreme stress, cognitive neuroscientist Amishi Jha of the Department of Psychology and Center for Cognitive Neuroscience at Penn and Elizabeth A. Stanley of Georgetown University provided mindfulness training for the first time to U.S. Marines before deployment. Jha and her research team investigated working memory capacity and affective experience in individuals participating in a training program developed and delivered by Stanley, a former U.S. Army officer and security-studies professor with extensive experience in mindfulness techniques.

The program, called Mindfulness-based Mind Fitness Training (MMFT™), aims to cultivate greater psychological resilience or "mental armor" by bolstering mindfulness.

 The program covered topics of central relevance to the Marines, such as integrating skills to manage stress reactions, increase their resilience to future stressors and improve their unit's mission effectiveness. Thus, the program blended mindfulness skills training with concrete applications for the operational environment and information and skills about stress, trauma and resilience in the body.

The program emphasized integrating mindfulness exercises, like focused attention on the breath and mindful movement, into pre-deployment training. These mindfulness skills were to regulate symptoms in the body and mind following an experience of extreme stress. The importance of regularly engaging in mindfulness exercises was also emphasized.

"Our findings suggest that, just as daily physical exercise leads to physical fitness, engaging in mindfulness exercises on a regular basis may improve mind-fitness," Jha said. "Working memory is an important feature of mind-fitness. Not only does it safeguard against distraction and emotional reactivity, but it also provides a mental workspace to ensure quick-and-considered decisions and action plans. Building mind-fitness with mindfulness training may help anyone who must maintain peak performance in the face of extremely stressful circumstances, from first responders, relief workers and trauma surgeons, to professional and Olympic athletes."

Study participants included two military cohorts of 48 male participants with a mean age of 25 recruited from a detachment of Marine reservists during the high-stress pre-deployment interval and provided MT to one group of 31, leaving 17 Marines in a second group without training as a control. The MT group attended an eight-week course and logged the amount of out-of-class time they spent practicing formal exercises. The effect of the course on working memory was evaluated using the Operation Span Task, whereas the impact on positive and negative affect was evaluated using the Positive and Negative Affect Schedule, or PANAS.

The Positive Affect scale reflects the extent to which a person feels enthusiastic, active and alert. The Negative Affect scale reflects unpleasant mood states, such as anger, disgust and fear. Working memory capacity degraded and negative mood increased over time in the control group. A similar pattern was observed in those who spent little time engaging in mindfulness exercises within the MMFT group. Yet, capacity increased and negative mood decreased in those with high practice time over the eight weeks.

The study findings are in line with prior research on Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction, or MBSR, programs and suggest that MMFT may provide "psychological prophylaxis," or protection from cognitive and emotional disturbances, even among high-stress cohorts such as members of the military preparing for deployment. Given the high rate of post-traumatic stress disorder and other mental-health disturbances suffered by those returning from war, providing such training prior to deployment may buffer against potential lifelong psychological illness by bolstering working memory capacity.

In the several months prior to a deployment, service members receive intensive training on mission-critical operational skills, physical training and "stress-inoculation" training to habituate them to stressors they may experience during their impending mission. They also must psychologically prepare to leave loved ones and face potentially violent and unpredictable situations during their deployment.
Persistent and intensive demands, such as those experienced during high-stress intervals, have been shown to deplete working memory capacity and lead to cognitive failures and emotional disturbances.

The research team hypothesized that MMFT may mitigate these deleterious effects by bolstering working memory capacity.

Source:  University of Pennsylvania

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