Why Warm-ups Before A Game Wake Up Both The Body And The Brain

Why Warm-ups Before A Game Wake Up Both The Body And The Brain

These pre-game preparations are certainly important for warming up the arms and legs, getting the heart rate up and loosening up muscles. But maybe more importantly, this skill repetition also gets the brain ready for the hundreds of actions it will need to perform soon after.

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The Semantic Spaces Of An Athlete's Brain

Playing different sports is rather redundant.  Think about the motor skills and objects of, say, hockey versus soccer.  Players on two teams try to keep control of the puck/ball and put it past the opposing keeper into the goal.  Tennis, badminton and volleyball share the concept of hitting an object over a net at an opponent.  Football and rugby both need to advance a ball across a goal line.  There are similar objects such as a ball, a goal and the field of play and movements like jumping and running.

An athlete’s brain needs to learn these shared concepts early on to be able to navigate the tactics and motor skills required for different sports. Now, neuroscientists may have discovered how our brains organize this overlapping information so we don’t need to relearn the basics of each new sport.
Think about when you started driving.  While you may have been taught in one particular car, you learned the more general concepts of driving and how to identify the common objects found in dozens of vehicles.  Within seconds of sitting in a different car, you can recognize the steering wheel, ignition switch, pedals, lights, not to mention the basic mechanical functions of making it move.
Neuroscience has traditionally explained this ability to recognize objects by localizing it only to the visual cortex, a specific area of the brain.  Now, neuroresearcher Alex Huth of the University of California – Berkeley and his team have discovered that these different categories of objects are actually represented over a larger overlapping space in the brain in the somatosensory and frontal cortices covering almost 20% of the brain.
From the same visual system modeling lab that brought us a mind-reading computer last year, Huth used a similar technique of watching the brains of five researcher volunteers while they watched two hours of movie trailers.  Using fMRI scanning, the roughly 30,000 locations, also known as voxels, in the cortex were recorded while seeing over 1,700 different categories of objects and actions from the clips.
By matching the electrical pattern in the subjects’ brains with the scenes they were watching, a “semantic space” map was created showing which areas of the brain were active when seeing certain objects or actions.  As seen in the image above, categories that light up the same pattern in the brain are colored the same.  For example, focus on the middle of this image and you’ll see a green section that identifies human actors, including athletes.  Each small leaf on each branch represents one of the 1,700 different object or action types, which is not an exhaustive list of things in our world but a good cross section.
“Our methods open a door that will quickly lead to a more complete and detailed understanding of how the brain is organized. Already, our online brain viewer appears to provide the most detailed look ever at the visual function and organization of a single human brain,” said Huth.
Indeed, that online brain viewer is a fascinating tool.  By choosing an object such as “athlete” or an action such as “kicking” on one side of the viewer, you can see the corresponding layout of brain topology that is used to visualize it.
“Using the semantic space as a visualization tool, we immediately saw that categories are represented in these incredibly intricate maps that cover much more of the brain than we expected,” Huth said.
The research is published in the journal Neuron.
By studying the semantic map, we can see the shared properties of athletic endeavours.  The athlete cluster includes “ballplayer”, “skater” and “climber.” Interestingly, a cluster called “move self”, (including actions such as reach, jump and grab), uses a separate brain network then a more general grouping called “move” (including actions of pull, drop and reach).  From a skill practice perspective, the idea of a concept neighborhood makes sense as other research has shown the transferability of movements and logic from one sport to another.
In case you were wondering, vehicles do have their own semantic group including everything from a moped to a pickup to a locomotive.

Euro 2012: A New Way To Track Team Performance

Cristiano Ronaldo
Imagine if the new Adidas soccer ball that will be used in this month’s Euro 2012 tournament had a memory chip in it that could retrace its entire path through each of the scheduled thirty-one games.  Not only its direction and distance traveled, but if it could also log each player’s touch leading up to every shot on goal.

Would the sum of all of those individual path segments tell the story of the game and which players contributed the most to their team’s success?  Northwestern University engineering professor Luís A. Nunes Amaral has not only answered that question, but has now built a side business to enlighten coaches and fans.

While most sports have an abundance of statistical metrics to measure a player’s development, soccer’s fluid gameplay and low scores make it more difficult to evaluate a specific player’s impact and contribution.  To fill the void, several game analysis service firms now offer data on each action of every player during a game, but it’s left to the consumers of this data (coaches, players and fans) to interpret what combination of stats best explains if the team is improving beyond the ultimate metric of wins and losses.

Amaral, a lifelong player and fan from Portugal, saw an opportunity to help.  “In soccer there are relatively few big things that can be counted,” he said. “You can count how many goals someone scores, but if a player scores two goals in a match, that’s amazing. You can really only divide two or three goals or two or three assists among, potentially, eleven players. Most of the players will have nothing to quantify their performance at the end of the match.”

In his lab at Northwestern, Amaral and his team of researchers study complex systems and networks; everything from metabolic ecosystems, the Internet, neural networks in our brain and the propagation of HIV infection.  To him, the game of soccer is no different.

“You can define a network in which the elements of the network are your players,” he commented. “Then you have connections between the players if they make passes from one to another. Also, because their goal is to score, you can include another element in this network, which is the goal.”
They dug into the stats of the previous European championship, Euro 2008, and mapped the ball movement and player statistics for each game into a computer model.  They made the assumption that the basic strategy of every soccer team is to move the ball towards their opponent’s goal.

“We looked at the way in which the ball can travel and finish on a shot,” said Amaral, who also is a member of the Northwestern Institute on Complex Systems (NICO) and an Early Career Scientist with the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.  ”The more ways a team has for a ball to travel and finish on a shot, the better that team is. And, the more times the ball goes through a given player to finish in a shot, the better that player performed.”

By combining a player’s passing efficiency (number of successful passes divided by total passes) and the ball flow around the field, the model can draw a network diagram of the paths that most often led to a shot on goal.  These well-worn paths begin to tell a story of which players are the most reliable and effective.  Amaral has given a very sports-bar worthy name to this ability – flow centrality.  The more often that a player is involved in the build-up of passes towards a shot, the more vital he or she is to the team’s success.

The research was published in the online science journal, PLoS ONE.

Since the study came out almost two years ago, Amaral has set-up a new company, Chimu Solutions, to not only offer soccer analysis but also to expand their algorithms and software to other lines of business to reveal “intricate team dynamics as well as individual metrics with the goal of differentiating role players from superstars.”

While goal scorers and goalkeepers most often get their names in the headlines, it’s often the supporting cast of players that determine the outcome of games.  Understanding how the ball should be and how it is moving up and down the field is critical to player development and game tactics.  One of the most difficult skills for free-flowing sports like hockey and soccer is the visual awareness of teammates’ locations and quick decisions to make progress towards the goal.  Flow centrality may just be the answer.

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Daniel Wolpert On Why You Have A Brain

Daniel Wolpert is absolutely certain about one thing.  “We have a brain for one reason and one reason only, and that’s to produce adaptable and complex movements,” stated Wolpert, Director of the Computational and Biological Learning Lab at the University of Cambridge.  “Movement is the only way you have of affecting the world around you.”  After that assertive opening to his 2011 TED Talk, he reported that, despite this important purpose, we have a long way to go in understanding of how exactly the brain controls our movements.

Daniel Wolpert
Daniel Wolpert
The evidence for this is in how well we’ve learned to mimic our movements using computers and robots.  For example, take the game of chess.  Since the late 1990s, computer software has been playing competitive matches and beating human master players by using programmed tactics and sheer computing power to analyze possible moves.  However, Wolpert points out that a five-year-old child can outperform the best robot in actually moving chess pieces around the board.

From a sports context, think of a baseball batter at the plate trying to hit a fastball.  It seems intuitive to watch the ball, time the start of the swing, position the bat at the right height to intercept the ball and send it deep.  So, why is hitting a baseball one of the most difficult tasks in sports?  Why can’t we perform more consistently?

The problem is noise.  Not noise as in the sense of sound but rather the variability of incoming sensory feedback, in other words, what your eyes and ears are telling you.  In baseball, the location and speed of the pitch are never exactly the same, so the brain needs a method to adapt to this uncertainty.  To do this, we need to make inferences or beliefs about the world.

The secret to this calculation, says Wolpert, is Bayesian decision theory, a gift of 18th century English mathematician and minister, Thomas Bayes.  In this framework, a belief is measured between 0, no confidence in the belief at all, and 1, complete trust in the belief.  Two sources of information are compared to find the probability of one result given another.  In the science of movement, these two sources are data, in the form of sensory input, and knowledge, in the form of prior memories learned from your experiences.
Thomas Bayes

So, our brain is constantly doing Bayesian calculations to compute the probability that the pitch that our eyes tell us is a fastball is actually a fastball based on our prior knowledge.  Every hitter knows when this calculation goes wrong when our prior knowledge tells our brain so convincingly that the next pitch will be a fastball, it overrules the real-time sensory input that this is actually a nasty curve ball.  The result is either a frozen set of muscles that get no instructions from a confused brain or a swing that is way too early.

Our actions and movements become a never-ending cycle of predictions.  Based on the visual stimuli of the approaching baseball, we send a command to our muscles to swing at the pitch at a certain time.  We receive instant feedback from our eyes, ears and hands about our success or failure in hitting the ball, then log that experience in our memory.

Wolpert calls this process our “neural simulator” which constantly and subconsciously makes predictions of how our movements will influence our surroundings. “The fundamental idea is you want to plan your movements so as to minimize the negative consequence of the noise,” he explained.

We can get a sense of what its like to break this action-feedback loop.  Imagine a pitcher aiming at the catcher’s mitt, releasing the ball but then never being able to see where the pitch ended up.  The brain would not be able to store that action as a success or failure and the Bayesian algorithm for future predictions would be incomplete.

Try this experiment with a friend.  Pick up a heavy object, like a large book, and hold it underneath with your left hand.  If you now use your right hand to lift the book off of your left hand, you’ll notice that your left hand stays steady.  However, if your friend lifts the book off of your hand, your brain will not be able to predict exactly when that will happen.  Your left hand will rise up just a little after the book is gone, until your brain realizes it no longer needs to compensate for the book’s weight.  When your own movement removed the book, your brain was able to cancel out that action and predict with certainty when to adjust your left hand’s support.

“As we go around, we learn about statistics of the world and lay that down,” said Wolpert.  “But we also learn about how noisy our own sensory apparatus is and then combine those in a real Bayesian way.”

Our movements, especially in sports, are very complex and the brain to body communication pathways are still being discovered.  We’ll rely on self-proclaimed “movement chauvinists” like Daniel Wolpert to continue to map those routes.  In the meantime, you can still brag about the pure genius of your five-year-old hitting a baseball.

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Lazy Person's Guide To Old Age

Stop eating all of that junk food.  Why?  So, you can live longer, of course.  Get off the La-Z-Boy and go run five miles.  Why?!  So, you can enjoy your old age.  No more drinking and smoking.  Why?!!  So, you can live to be 100 years old.

The rationale often given for converting to healthy habits has been to give you a longer life.  Who better to know about long lives than those that are closing in on the big 100.  The U.S. Census Bureau estimates there were nearly 425,000 people aged 95 and older living in the U.S. in 2010 − still only a small percentage of the 40 million U.S. adults 65 and over.

What’s their secret?  Are they non-smoking, teetotaling, vegan marathon runners?  Not exactly, according to researchers at the Institute for Aging Research at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine.
They interviewed 477 Ashkenazi Jews who were 95 and older (95-112, 75 percent of them women), and participating in Einstein's Longevity Genes Project.  The Ashkenazi descendents are more genetically alike, making it easier to control genetic differences.  The group was asked about their living habits back when they were 70 to get an idea of their daily lives that got them this far.  Questions about alcohol and tobacco use, their diet, and how much they exercised helped paint a picture of environmental factors that influenced their health.
Next, Dr. Nir Barzilai and his team compared the test group with 3,164 people with similar birth years who had provided similar data in the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES 1) back in the early 1970s.

Surprisingly, there was little evidence that living to a ripe old age required following all of the recommended rules.  Only 27 percent of the elderly women ate a low-calorie diet in their earlier years, matching an equal percentage of women in the larger population.  In the bigger group, 22 percent of the men drank alcohol daily, but so did 24 percent of the old guys.  It must be exercise, right?  Nope, only 43 percent of the centenarians reported regular moderate workouts compared with 57 percent of their comparison counterparts.

Dr. Barzilai did find one factor difference, obesity.  While the older population was just as likely to be overweight as the others, it was rare that they were obese.  Only 4.5 percent of the males and 9.6 percent of the females were severely overweight, compared to 12.1 percent and 16.2 percent of the large control group, respectively.

So, if its not all of that “nurture”, then it must be nature or genetic differences that account for the 100 birthday candles.

"In previous studies of our centenarians, we've identified gene variants that exert particular physiology effects, such as causing significantly elevated levels of HDL or 'good' cholesterol," said Dr. Barzilai, who is a professor of medicine and of genetics at Einstein. "This study suggests that centenarians may possess additional longevity genes that help to buffer them against the harmful effects of an unhealthy lifestyle."

That’s it, then, we can all go out and party this weekend, since we have no control over which end of the gene pool we were thrown into, right?  As retired football coach and ESPN analyst Lee Corso likes to say, “Not so fast, my friend.”

"Although this study demonstrates that centenarians can be obese, smoke and avoid exercise, those lifestyle habits are not good choices for most of us who do not have a family history of longevity," said Dr. Barzilai. "We should watch our weight, avoid smoking and be sure to exercise, since these activities have been shown to have great health benefits for the general population, including a longer lifespan."

Then again, maybe life after 90 isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be.

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See also: Women Should Use New Formula For Maximum Heart Rate and Exercise Pumps Up Your Brain

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.

You might also like: How To See A 130 MPH Tennis Serve and Breaking Curveballs And Rising Fastballs Are Optical Illusions

If Your Brain Is Over 40, It Needs To Move

There was a time when I could hide my gray hairs with some strategic combing.  Now, I have succumbed and describe my new hair color as “executive blond.”  Of course, that also means that the important stuff under my scalp is getting older too.  Brains start to “go gray” about the same time the hair does, which is why exercise for older adults has become the new anti-aging fix for our senior cerebellums. Several new studies provide more evidence that a brain in motion tends to remain... young.

The older population (which does not include me yet!), persons 65 years or older, totaled 39.6 million in 2009 (the latest year for which data is available). They represented 12.9% of the U.S. population, about one in every eight Americans. By 2030, there will be about 72.1 million older persons, more than twice their number in 2000. People 65+ represented 12.4% of the population in the year 2000 but are expected to grow to be 19% of the population by 2030.

Over the last several years, dozens of studies have concluded that exercise helps not only your reflection in the mirror but also your cognitive ability.  Just in the last four months, three research projects, one small, one medium and one large, reported their findings of the effects of exercise on the older brain.

First up, a micro study of 16 women, aged 60 and over, hypothesized that a moderate exercise program would increase blood flow to the brain.  Dr. Rong Zhang, a researcher at the Institute for Exercise and Environmental Medicine at Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital Dallas, first measured the blood flow in the women's internal carotid arteries, using Doppler ultrasonography.  Next, a baseline test was taken of their maximal oxygen consumption (VO2 max) to gauge their body’s ability to use oxygen during exercise.

Then the walking started.  Each woman was given a training plan based on their current fitness level that started with three 30-minute sessions per week of walking at a pace of 50-60% of their VO2 maximum.  By the third month, this was increased to four sessions at 70-80% of VO2 max.

A second blood flow test showed a significant increase in cerebral blood flow by an average of 15% in the women’s left carotid artery and 11% in the right artery.  VO2 max also went up by 13%, while their blood pressures and heart rates declined by 4% and 5%, respectively.

Dr. Zhang likes the correlation, "There are many studies that suggest that exercise improves brain function in older adults, but we don't know exactly why the brain improves. Our study indicates it might be tied to an improvement in the supply of blood flow to the brain."

So, what might that extra blood be doing for the brain?  Kirk Erickson, professor of psychology at the University of Pittsburgh, is convinced that exercise actually grows the size of the brain.  He and a cross-university team of scientists recruited 120 dementia-free, sedentary senior citizens to measure their brain size before and after a one year long walking program.  After measuring each volunteers’ hippocampus dimensions using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), they were split into two groups.  One group would start a walking program of 40 minutes per session, three days per week, while the other group simply did a stretching and toning program.

After one year, a second MRI showed that the walkers increased their hippocampus size by an average of 2% while those that only stretched showed a decrease in brain volume of about 1.4%.  Also, a spatial memory test performed pre and post exercise showed a significant improvement for the walkers versus the stretchers.

"We think of the atrophy of the hippocampus in later life as almost inevitable," said Kirk Erickson, professor of psychology at the University of Pittsburgh and the paper's lead author. "But we've shown that even moderate exercise for one year can increase the size of that structure. The brain at that stage remains modifiable."

There is another important benefit to that extra blood flow, preventing strokes or even small brain lesions, or infarcts, often known as silent strokes.  "These 'silent strokes' are more significant than the name implies, because they have been associated with an increased risk of falls and impaired mobility, memory problems and even dementia, as well as stroke," said brain researcher Joshua Z. Willey, MD of Columbia University in New York.

Willey and his team asked 1,238 people over age 60, who had never had a stroke, about the frequency and intensity of their exercise regimen.  About 43 percent of the participants reported that they had no regular exercise; 36 percent did regular light exercise, such as golf, walking, bowling or dancing; and 21 percent performed regular moderate to intense exercise, such as hiking, tennis, swimming, biking, jogging or racquetball.

Six years later, all participants underwent an MRI scan of their brain.  Sixteen percent of the group, 197 volunteers, had suffered from an infarct or silent stroke during the time frame.  However, the moderate to intense exercise group was 40% less likely to have had the small lesions than the group that did not exercise at all.  There was no significant difference between those that did light exercise and those that did no exercise.

"Encouraging older people to take part in moderate to intense exercise may be an important strategy for keeping their brains healthy,” concluded Willey. "Of course, light exercise has many other beneficial effects, and these results should not discourage people from doing light exercise."

So, no excuses anymore.  Throw some hair color on your scalp, then go for that walk.  Your hair will look young and your brain will think young.

See also: Exercise Pumps Up Your Brain and Boomer Brains Need Exercise

New Study Identifies NBA Players Who Shoot Too Much

To reach the NBA Finals, Russell Westbrook of the Oklahoma City Thunder needs to pass more, especially to his teammate Kevin Durant.  That would be the message that two researchers would send to Thunder coach, Scott Brooks, if given the chance.  Matt Goldman, a graduate student at the University of California, San Diego, and Justin Rao, a research scientist at Yahoo Labs recently named Westbrook as the biggest “chucker” in the NBA because of statistics showing that he shoots much more often than he should, while Durant is classified as an undershooter, whose team would benefit from him taking more chances.

While their statistical theory builds a case for how to achieve optimal efficiency on the court, they don’t explain why elite players make the in-game decisions that they do.  For that matter, what about the high school ball player or the weekend warrior at the gym; how do they make the decision to pass or shoot?  For that, Markus Raab and Joseph Johnson, both sport scientists, have some insights  from their research.

First, let’s do the numbers.  Goldman and Rao dug into the NBA stats archive to analyze over 400,000 team possessions over the last four seasons, 2006-2010, across the entire league.  In a paper and presentation at the recent MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, they presented a model that compares the difficulty of a shot taken in relation to the time remaining on the 24 second shot clock.  Then they compare this with a concept called “allocative efficiency”, or the benefit of equally distributing the ball to any of the five players on the court and also “dynamic efficiency”, or deciding whether to “use” the possession by taking a shot or “continuing” the possession by making a pass.  As the shot clock winds down, the marginal difficulty of a shot considered will need to rise or they risk getting no shot off before the 24 seconds expires, wasting the possession.

They found that most NBA  players are very efficient in their shot selection.  Surprisingly, several elite players are actually not shooting enough, according to their model.  Here is the list of all NBA players analyzed and their score, where a negative number (at the top of the list) represent overshooters.  Joining Westbrook at the top of the list were well-known names like Lamar Odom and Tracy McGrady.  Even bigger names like LeBron James, Ray Allen, Dirk Nowitzki, Chris Paul and Joe Johnson actually show up at the bottom of the list and may hurt their team with their unselfishness.

So, what goes on in these very well-paid athletic brains?  Are the trigger-happy players selfish, over-confident and in need of attention?  Markus Raab, professor at the German Sport University-Cologne, and Joseph Johnson, professor at Miami University of Ohio,  have spent the last ten years studying the decision-making processes of athletes in several different sports, but especially fast-paced games where quick decisions are critical.

Let’s imagine the Thunder point guard, Westbrook, bringing the ball up the floor.  He crosses the half court line and his decision making process kicks in.  The Raab/Johnson process first recognizes that perception of the situation is required before the player can generate all of the different options in his brain.  Just like a quarterback examining and identifying the defensive alignment as he breaks the huddle, the point guard in basketball has to visually process the scene in front of him.  From there, his brain, based on his vast memory of similar basketball experiences, begins to make a list of options.  These can be spatial options, like move the ball left, ahead or right, or functional options like pass or shoot.  

Through research with basketball and team handball players, the researchers found that the most effective strategy is to “take the first” option that the player conceives as that is most often the “correct” choice when analyzed later by experts.  Much like going with your first answer on a test, the more that you deliberate over other choices, the greater the chances that you’ll pick the wrong one.  

However, each player will have their own library of choices stored in their memory and this magical sorting of best options can be influenced by several unique variables.  

One of these pre-determined factors is a personality preference known as action vs. state orientation.  According to Raab, “An action orientation is attributed to players if they concentrate on a specific goal and take risks, whereas a state orientation is attributed to players if they have non-task-relevant cognitions and reduce risk-taking behavior by considering more situative considerations and future behavioral consequences.”  In other words, someone who has an action mentality is more likely to shoot first and ask questions later, while a state oriented player is going to consider more options with more long-term outlook.

For this and similar experiments, Raab and Johnson showed first-person videos of many different basketball in-game scenarios to players of different skill levels and personality types, then froze the scene and asked them to make a quick decision of what to do next with the ball.  They recorded the decision and the time it took to make the decision.  They found that those players who have more of an action orientation, according to a personality test given prior to the drill, were more likely to shoot first and more quickly.  Clearly, Russell Westbrook must fall in this category.

Raab followed up this study with a similar one that measured the difference between intuition-based decisions and more cognitive, deliberate decisions.  A player who “goes with his gut” was shown to make faster and more successful choices than one that over analyzes.  This may help explain the list of elite players who tend to pass more than shoot.  They have more experience and patience to rely on their intuitive feel for the game.  While Goldman and Rao may ask them to be more action oriented, these players have learned that they are often just one more pass away from a much higher percentage shot.

Certainly, this is the tip of the iceberg regarding the psyche of a player at any level.  There are many more variables, some fact-based (I’ve missed my last 5 shots, so I’m going to pass) while some are more emotional, (I don’t want my teammate to get all the glory.)  For now, Thunder fans can only hope that their point guard learns to share.

See also: Are Bank Shots Best In Basketball? and NBA Teams Win With Ethnic Diversity

Exercise Helps Older Brains - Now We Know Why

Research conducted at Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital's Institute for Exercise and Environmental Medicine in Dallas suggests that it's never too late for women to reap the benefits of moderate aerobic exercise. In a 3-month study of 16 women age 60 and older, brisk walking for 30-50 minutes three or four times per week improved blood flow through to the brain as much as 15%.

Rong Zhang, the lead researcher in the study, discussed the team's findings in a presentation titled, "Aerobic exercise training increases brain perfusion in elderly women" at the Experimental Biology meeting (EB 2011), held April 9-13, 2011 at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center, Washington, DC.

At the beginning of the study, the researchers used Doppler ultrasonography to measure blood flow in the women's internal carotid arteries, which are located in the neck and supply the brain with necessary glucose and oxygen-rich blood. After assessing the women's physical health and maximal oxygen consumption (VO2 max), which is the body's maximum capacity to transport and use oxygen during exercise, the team tailored training programs for each woman according to her fitness level.

Training started at a base pace of 50-60% of the participants' VO2 max for 30 minutes per session, three times per week. By the third month, the team had increased the sessions to 50 minutes each, four times per week, and added two more sessions at 70-80% of the women's VO2 max for 30 minutes.

At study's end, the team measured blood flow in the women's carotid arteries again and found that cerebral blood flow increased an average of 15% and 11% in the women's left and right internal carotid arteries, respectively. The women's VO2 max increased roughly 13%, their blood pressure dropped an average of 4%, and their heart rates decreased approximately 5%.

According to Dr. Zhang, the results provide insight into how vascular health affects brain health. "There are many studies that suggest that exercise improves brain function in older adults, but we don't know exactly why the brain improves. Our study indicates it might be tied to an improvement in the supply of blood flow to the brain."

A steady, healthy flow of blood to the brain achieves two things. First, the blood brings oxygen, glucose and other nutrients to the brain, which are vital for the brain's health. Second, the blood washes away brain metabolic wastes such as amyloid-beta protein released into the brain's blood vessels. Amyloid-beta protein has been implicated in the development of Alzheimer's disease.

Whether the increased blood flow to the brain improves learning and reasoning has yet to be determined, says Dr. Zhang. "I don't have the data to suggest a correlation between brain perfusion and cognitive function, but this is something we eventually will see after this study is completed," he says. "We do know there is strong evidence to suggest that cardiovascular risk is tied to the risk for Alzheimer's disease. We want to see how we can fight that."

Dr. Zhang stresses the importance of the finding that improvement in brain blood flow is possible in one's senior years. "We often start to see a decline in brain perfusion and cognitive function in the 60s and 70s. That's when the downward trajectory starts. We want to see how much we can do to reverse or delay that process."

Source:  American Physiological Society

You'll Also Like: Exercise Grows Kids' Brains, Literally and Exercise Pumps Up Your Brain

Workouts Have Gone Digital With TrainingPeaks.com

Gear Fisher, CEO of Peaksware
Along with everything else that is digital in our lives, our workouts are now captured in 0's and 1's.  Its not enough that we run, walk, bike or swim, we now have a need to capture data about our efforts so that we can benchmark, measure and improve our future performances.

Gear Fisher recognized this trend way back in 1999, before there were iPods, iPhones, Nike+ or wearable GPS.  He started his new Peaksware company with a simple website, which has now grown into TrainingPeaks.com, one of  the leading online exercise management tools.

I caught up with Gear, now CEO of Peaksware, recently to discuss this wave of digital sweat tracking and get his thoughts on the future of exercise.

Dan Peterson: There seems to be a data revolution going on in the fitness world, between
heart rate monitors, GPS, Nike+, and Web-based activity apps. How did we get
here and what's next on the horizon?

Gear Fisher: I think that’s very true, it’s been growing for 10 years, but really only the last 3 or 4
have we seen a major uptick in acceptance. When we started the company in 1999,
there were only a handful of companies with downloadable devices. What’s more, few
people knew what to do with the data. Today, with Garmin, Timex, iPhone and Android
apps, and the other big players, they’ve made it easier and easier to get the data off the
devices and into the cloud for analysis... and with amazing accuracy. Consumers now
expect a fitness device to be downloadable if they pay over $200.

With smartphones, its even easier to collect GPS data and get it to the cloud for storage, sharing and
analysis. In the future, it’ll get even easier, I would not be surprised to see implanted
sensors that monitor additional metrics like body temperature, hydration, hunger,
blood sugar, real-time aerodynamics.. in fact, its happening now! Tracking workouts,
monitoring nutrition, making fitness social, working with a coach, these are all key
components for an emerging market which is just now getting started. It’s gaining mass
market appeal and adoption because the big players like Nike are on-board too.
We’ve carved out a niche in the high-end endurance athlete and coach market, but
we’ll see the same approach trickle down to many other verticals. Like Formula 1 or
NASCAR, our customers are the early adopters of new ideas in managing fitness and
nutrition via the internet.

TrainingPeaks has really served as the test-bed for these new ideas. Some of these ideas are now starting to reach the mass market, just like the technology in the race car’s alternator makes its way to the production line a few years later. It’s an understatement to say that the fitness industry, and its broader umbrella, the health care industry, needs a major revamp, and we’re going to be part of that

Dan: Professional coaches and elite athletes understand how to turn all of this
data into useful knowledge for performance improvement, but do you think the
weekend warriors are also ready and able to make sense of it?

Gear:  Yes, they are definitely eager and and interested. This is where we come in. Making
sense of data, using it as a motivator and to make decisions going forward. There are
a few books like Hunter Allen and Andy Coggan’s “Training and Racing with a Power
Meter” that focus entirely on making sense of the data. We’ve worked hard at “boiling
down” how a workout affected your physiology. This is the essence of Training Stress
Score (TSS). Providing a single, meaningful number for every workout that can be
compared and shared. But even without hard-core analysis, it’s fun to see a map of
your route and to replay and review what your output was like for a particular climb,
sprint or interval. There are a LOT of enhancements coming in the near future that
will continue to “make sense of the data” and provide meaningful daily insight into your
workouts and nutrition.

Dan: Can personal fitness coaches play a role in turning this data into improvement
for the average athlete?

Gear: Absolutely! Coaches are particularly adept at not only analyzing the data, but
deciding how it affects training and making decisions as to how an athlete should adjust
their training based on the information. A coach is a “data and motivation” professional.
Many age-groupers use coaches for the sheer benefit of time savings. There’s a lot
to learn, and a coach makes training time efficient and prevents mistakes. There is no
computer system that can provide you better results than working with a coach, in fact,
we often say the best way to use our software is with a coach.

Dan: What was the initial inspiration for Peaksware and its flagship product,
TrainingPeaks? How far have you come in meeting those initial goals?

Gear: In 1999, Joe and Dirk Friel asked me to build a web-based training log to replace their email/fax/paper system which they were using for their coaching company.
They had some early Filemaker Pro database tools, but it was clunky and nearly
impossible to get reliable and regular information back from clients. After I built the
initial web app, I proposed that we open up the systems to the public and start a
subscription business whereby athletes and coaches could use the same tools. That
started “TrainingBible.com”. Essentially, it was an online version of Joe’s very popular
TrainingBible book series. We then realized that if we made the systems more agnostic,
any coach with any methodology could use it. From there, we grew organically and I
quit my job about 2 years later to begin working on the company full time.

Since then, it’s been pretty remarkable, we have 30 people now, over 10 different software products
across desktop, mobile and web, and we’re growing faster than ever. It was a “right
time with the right product and right team” sort of moment, I’m lucky and proud to be
a part of it. It also feels like we’ve really just started. I often say that we are a 10 year
old start-up, because there is so much opportunity ahead and the industry is being
redefined continuously.

Dan: With so many sources of training data available to athletes, it seems
TrainingPeaks has positioned itself as the hub that can integrate all of these
different formats into a single repository. Is the training industry starting to agree
on some standards to make this easier?

Gear:  It is certainly core to our strategy to be the Switzerland of training data and training
methodology. We work with nearly all device manufacturers and even have as one of
our marketing slogans that we are the “One Source” to monitor, analyze and plan your
fitness and nutrition. As for a data standard? Not really. There is some consolidation,
but every hardware vendor seems to want to do their own thing. I have seen some
pretty good usage of the “.fit” binary file format that Dynastream (owned by Garmin) has
created and made available to the world. Even our own “.pwx” format has become fairly
popular and adopted by a few other software and hardware products. However, we’re
really not close to a standard.

Where I do see some conformance is in how data is saved on devices. More and more devices are simply acting like mass storage devices that can plugin via USB to any computer, instead of using proprietary drivers and such for custom downloading. Even better are those that simply send the data to the cloud and make the data available via an API. Currently, we support over 25 different file
formats through our own API, and we routinely see data from over 90 devices, so there
is still a lot of legacy and fragmentation.

Dan: Will there someday be a single device we can wear that collects everything
and feeds coaching information back to us in real-time out on the road?

Gear: There already is! A few different iPhone/Android apps that focus on real-time data
collection are already available today. SRM, the German power meter company, does
a real-time data feed during the Tour de France every year, allowing viewers to see
GPS location, heart rate, power, cadence, speed of many riders. I’m sure we’ll see a
lot more progress in this area too. It is somewhat hampered because of mobile phone
network latency/bandwidth issues and lack of mobile network coverage, but it’s an
exciting area that we are interested in.

Dan: Peaksware recently purchased the SprintGPS suite of apps to integrate with
TrainingPeaks. What does this mean for TrainingPeaks users?

Gear: We are committed to having world-class software for every screen, whether that’s
your smartphone, tablet or 24” monitor on your desk at the office. And, we want all of
our apps for every screen to integrate with each other seamlessly. These apps gave
us a platform to build out some killer new features and products, and we are already
well under way to extend them to Android. For a few dollars, customers can get the
apps and see what collecting fitness data is all about. A majority of our customerbase
still has no downloadable device. When you collect and add your own data
into TrainingPeaks and see the calendar and charts light up, it’s a very powerful and
compelling emotional connection to our software.

Our mobile apps make it incredibly easy to get data to the cloud. Because smartphones are truly computers in your pocket, they really open up a world of opportunity and we want to be there to provide those tools to our customers. We are seeing huge adoption of mobile, not only through
native apps, but also through our web-app, which can be accessed from nearly any
smartphone. I’m quite certain that we’ll have many customers in the future that
don’t even bother to use the traditional “browser” interface from a PC or Mac, they’ll
interact with their data entirely through mobile, and we’ll make sure it’s a world-class

Dan: For the first two days that the new apps went on sale in March, Peaksware
donated all proceeds, over $5000, to three charities, American Cancer Society’s
Determination, The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society’s Team in Training and
theNational Multiple Sclerosis Society’s BikeMS programs. What inspired this

Gear: When we acquired the apps from the original company, we thought we’d be able to
simply transfer the apps from the their iTunes store to our own iTunes store. However,
because of a legal snafu, Apple prevented us from doing so. It meant that all existing
SprintGPS users would have to obtain the apps all over again from our store in order
to continue receiving support and upgrades. Not ideal and a bit of a pain for existing
customers. So, when trying to decide how to manage this snafu, we tried to turn
lemons into lemonade, we didn’t want to force people to buy the apps all over again,
but if we had to, we thought it would be a great opportunity to raise money for charity.

We didn’t want the money from customers that had already paid for the app. Because
we didn’t have any supportable method to make the apps free again, we felt this was
a reasonable solution and our customers would be understanding of the position we
were in. So, although customers would have to re-buy the apps, we made the price 99
cents and donated it all to charity for the initial launch. It was a good way to raise some
money for these great partners of ours.

Dan: Living near the gorgeous Colorado scenery, do you sometimes head out for a
run or a ride with absolutely no data-gathering devices?!

Gear: Well, in fact, I do.. but I hate when it happens. Usually its because one of 10 different
devices that I have is not charged, I forgot it at the office or I can’t find it. Tracking my
data is a motivator for me, and it’s just so easy to record what you did using one of our
compatible devices.

For me, I’ve long given up my competitive racing past, and am
really out to just maintain fitness and have a good time with friends, and I enjoy looking
back at my workouts. It’s almost to the point where if I do a workout without a device, it
feels like it didn’t count! I need that motivation to get me out the door, and the fear of a
blank white TrainingPeaks calendar is what gets me out the door on many mornings!

Dan: Thanks, Gear!

Are Bank Shots Best In Basketball?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

After The Game, Get Off The Couch

Spending too much leisure time in front of a TV or computer screen appears to dramatically increase the risk for heart disease and premature death from any cause, perhaps regardless of how much exercise one gets, according to a new study published in the January 18, 2011, issue of the Journal of the American College of Cardiology.

Data show that compared to people who spend less than two hours each day on screen-based entertainment like watching TV, using the computer or playing video games, those who devote more than four hours to these activities are more than twice as likely to have a major cardiac event that involves hospitalization, death or both.

The study -- the first to examine the association between screen time and non-fatal as well as fatal cardiovascular events -- also suggests metabolic factors and inflammation may partly explain the link between prolonged sitting and the risks to heart health.
The present study included 4,512 adults who were respondents of the 2003 Scottish Health Survey, a representative, household-based survey. A total of 325 all-cause deaths and 215 cardiac events occurred during an average of 4.3 years of follow up.

"People who spend excessive amounts of time in front of a screen -- primarily watching TV -- are more likely to die of any cause and suffer heart-related problems," said Emmanuel Stamatakis, PhD, MSc, Department of Epidemiology and Public Health, University College London, United Kingdom. "Our analysis suggests that two or more hours of screen time each day may place someone at greater risk for a cardiac event."

In fact, compared with those spending less than two hours a day on screen-based entertainment, there was a 48% increased risk of all-cause mortality in those spending four or more hours a day and an approximately 125% increase in risk of cardiovascular events in those spending two or more hours a day. These associations were independent of traditional risk factors such as smoking, hypertension, BMI, social class, as well as exercise.

The findings have prompted authors to advocate for public health guidelines that expressly address recreational sitting (defined as during non-work hours), especially as a majority of working age adults spend long periods being inactive while commuting or being slouched over a desk or computer.

"It is all a matter of habit. Many of us have learned to go back home, turn the TV set on and sit down for several hours -- it's convenient and easy to do. But doing so is bad for the heart and our health in general," said Dr. Stamatakis. "And according to what we know so far, these health risks may not be mitigated by exercise, a finding that underscores the urgent need for public health recommendations to include guidelines for limiting recreational sitting and other sedentary behaviors, in addition to improving physical activity."

Biological mediators also appear to play a role. Data indicate that one fourth of the association between screen time and cardiovascular events was explained collectively by C-reactive protein (CRP), body mass index, and high-density lipoprotein cholesterol suggesting that inflammation and deregulation of lipids may be one pathway through which prolonged sitting increases the risk for cardiovascular events. CRP, a well-established marker of low-grade inflammation, was approximately two times higher in people spending more than four hours of screen time per day compared to those spending less than two hours a day.

Dr. Stamatakis says the next step will be to try to uncover what prolonged sitting does to the human body in the short- and long-term, whether and how exercise can mitigate these consequences, and how to alter lifestyles to reduce sitting and increase movement and exercise.

Source:  American College of Cardiology and Emmanuel Stamatakis, Mark Hamer, and David W. Dunstan. Screen-Based Entertainment Time, All-Cause Mortality, and Cardiovascular Events: Population-Based Study With Ongoing Mortality and Hospital Events Follow-Up. Journal of the American College of Cardiology, 2011; 57: 292-299 DOI: 10.1016/j.jacc.2010.05.065

See also: Exercise - The Cure For The Common Cold and Training In The Heat Even Helps Competing In Cool Temps

Do Young Athletes Need Practice Or Genetics? A Conversation With Peter Vint

Recently, while I was taking up my normal Saturday position on a youth soccer game sideline, I overheard a conversation between two parents as they watched the players warm-up. “I just love watching James play soccer.  He’s just one of those natural talents.” “I agree. Even though his parents never played growing up, he just seems to have inherited all the right genes to be a top player.” 

It’s a common belief among parents and some coaches that kids either have “it” or they don’t.  Of course, some skills can be gained from practice, but the talent theory of player development and team selection seems to favor the opinion that athletic skill is “hard-wired”, unable to progress much beyond the natural limit.

Now, several books are out to prove this theory incorrect, with titles such as “The Talent Code: Greatness Isn’t Born, Its Grown”, “Talent Is Overrated”, and “The Genius in All of Us: Why Everything You've Been Told About Genetics, Talent, and IQ Is Wrong.” The common thread through all of the research studies quoted by the authors is the mantra that practice makes perfect. More specifically, about 10,000 hours of highly structured practice is required to reach elite performance levels.

Is athletic success that black or white? Instead, is there a combination of talent and tenacity that is required to reach the top? I put these questions to an expert who spends most of his waking hours trying to find the answer.

Peter Vint
Peter Vint is the High Performance Director for the United States Olympic Committee. His responsibilities include leading and coordinating the efforts of sport science and medical professionals focused on the Olympic sports of swimming, track and field, shooting, equestrian, weightlifting, and golf as well as the Pan Am sports of bowling and water skiing.

His team is responsible for conceptualizing, developing, and implementing successful and sustainable applied sport science programs with a focus on maximizing athlete development, performance, and longevity.

Recently, Peter was kind enough to endure my endless questions on this topic. Here is a synopsis of our conversation:

Dan Peterson: Peter, what makes a great athlete? Is it raw, inherited talent or years of dedicated practice?

Peter Vint: The question of what makes an athlete great is very complex.  The extent to which performance is influenced by genetic predisposition or the expression of these traits through extensive hard work and practice is not at all a black and white issue. Human performance is always nuanced and complicated and multivariate. That said, if forced to give an opinion, I would absolutely fall on the nurture/deliberate practice side of this issue than on the nature/"giftedness" side.

But, whether you subscribe to the narratives in The Talent Code, Talent is Overrated, Bounce, Outliers, Genius in All of Us, etc. or not, a great number of the cited references in these books are solid and substantial. Be sure to review the footnotes and bibliographies.

DP:  Most of the books you reference go back to the research of K. Anders Ericsson of Florida State University, known as the “expert on experts.”  His theory states that an individual needs at least 10 years and 10,000 hours of deliberate practice in their chosen sport or skill to become world-class.  Some authors take this literally and suggest that is all that is needed.  Do you agree?

PV:  First, it’s important to recognize that the 10 year/10,000 hr rule is more of a general guideline than an absolute standard. Ericsson is very clear on this but perhaps owing to the simplicity of the message, it is quite possible that the general public has interpreted this in a more absolute sense. That said, I do think that Ericsson’s work is being somewhat oversimplified in that he, and others in this field, realize that there are obvious and necessary interactions between genetic predisposition, "deliberate practice", and even "opportunity" or circumstance. To what extent this has actually happened I cannot say. I can point to several examples in the popular media where authors have captured these complexities nicely (e.g., Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers, Matthew Syed’s Bounce, and David Shenk’s The Genius in All of Us).

It is likely that athletes like Lebron James, Shaquille O'Neill, and Kevin Durant would never have become an Olympic gymnast or Triple Crown winning jockey - regardless of how hard or how deeply they practiced. But, how many athletes with a relatively similar genetic makeup to guys like Lebron, Shaq, and KD have NOT become superstars? A lot. And, to flip the coin, how many superstars arise from relative obscurity or against all odds? A lot. Even when we do become aware of "young geniuses", closer inspection often yields interested and engaged and supportive parents and an environment that encourages and supports "effort" - and not "the gift" (see Carol Dweck’s “Mindset” for an exceptional treatment of this topic). Michael Jordan, Wayne Gretzky, and Tiger Woods come to mind.

My feeling in reading a broad body of literature related to human performance is that, in general (and there are notable exceptions to this), there is likely a minimal set of physical traits or genetic makeup which facilitates achievement to a particular level of success. Note that this may not be an absolute necessity (think, Mugsy Bogues). However, I believe the great differentiator in human performance is not genetic predisposition. but rather the expression of the gene pool which is itself now clearly related to the extent to which the individual accumulates hours of "deliberate practice".

I see another common misinterpretation in the 10 year/10,000 hr rule. The literature is clear in this but the general public’s understanding often misses the distinction in that this is not simply accumulated hours of practice, but accumulated hours of DELIBERATE practice. Dan Coyle's introduction in "The Talent Code", "The girl who did a month's practice in 6-minutes" is, in my opinion, perhaps the most insightful example of this distinction I’ve ever read.

DP: So, do genetics play any role in sports success?

PV: My short answer is yes, to varying extents, they do. But, as before, I do not believe that genetics are necessarily an absolute limiter of exceptional performances. "Skill" is developed, not from basic physical or cognitive attributes or from some magical quality ("a gift"), but from sustained, effortful, and effective practice complemented with meaningful, well-timed, and actionable feedback.

Skill itself is a complex process and almost always involves many different types or classes of skill: motor skill (the physical actions involved with "doing something"), mental skills, and perceptual skills. The extent to which these various types of skills are called into play will depend on the overall task being executed.

For example, a pilot controlling an automated aircraft may need only nominal motor skill to press a button, but will require substantial mental and perceptual skill to understand what happens when the automation switches from one mode to another. On the other hand, a basketball player will require extensive motor skill in executing a drive to the basket but will, though to a lesser extent, also involve perceptual and mental skills. Good examples of the world's best players in sport (especially team sports) seem to have exceptionally well developed perceptual skills which allow them to "see the field" better than others and "know where players will be before they even arrive".

So, physical ability (height, strength, speed, coordination) and the specific genetic code which tends to manifest it, may or may not play a significant role in the execution of the skill, depending on what the skill actually requires. The same is true of genetic predisposition, which may either enhance or impair the development of mental and perceptual skill.

In the context of sport, well-matched physical abilities are often very advantageous. That said, those same physical attributes, without an ability to properly coordinate body actions or to properly execute the action at the appropriate time or to adequately control them under pressure or in unusual circumstances, more often than not, will lead to poorer performances. Pointing again to examples like Wayne Gretzky or Magic Johnson, these were not the biggest, fastest, or strongest athletes in their sport. Their exceptional performances came from exceptional development of all facets of the skills they were required to execute in the environments they worked in. This did not happen magically but through hard work, vast and varied experiences, and a level of physical ability that allowed them to execute.  To quote Wayne Gretzky, “I wasn't naturally gifted in terms of size and speed; everything I did in hockey I worked for. ..The highest compliment that you can pay me is to say that I work hard every day…

DP:  Peter, thank you very much for your insight.

Training In The Heat Even Helps Competing In Cool Temps

(Credit: Image courtesy of University of Oregon)
Turning up the heat might be the best thing for athletes competing in cool weather, according to a new study by human physiology researchers at the University of Oregon.  Published in the October issue of the Journal of Applied Physiology, the paper examined the impact of heat acclimation to improve athletic performance in hot and cool environments.

Researchers conducted exercise tests on 12 highly trained cyclists -- 10 males and two females -- before and after a 10-day heat acclimation program. Participants underwent physiological and performance tests under both hot and cool conditions. A separate control group of eight highly trained cyclists underwent testing and followed the same exercise regime in a cool environment.

The data concluded that heat acclimation exposure provided considerable ergogenic benefits in cool conditions, in addition to the expected performance benefits in the hot environment. The study is the first to evaluate impacts of heat acclimation on aerobic performance in cool conditions.

"Our findings could have significant impacts in the competitive sports world," said Santiago Lorenzo, a researcher who performed the work as part of his dissertation at the University of Oregon. He is now completing post-doctoral training in the Institute for Exercise and Environmental Medicine (University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center) at Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital Dallas.

The study found performance increases of approximately 7 percent after 10 heat acclimation exposures. "In terms of competitive cycling, 7 percent is a really big increase and could mean that cyclists could use this approach to improve their performance in cooler weather conditions," said Lorenzo. However, the heat exposures must be in addition to the athletes' normal training regimen.
Heat acclimation improves the body's ability to control body temperature, improves sweating and increases blood flow through the skin, and expands blood volume allowing the heart to pump to more blood to muscles, organs and the skin as needed.
Another approach using the environment to improve exercise performance is a "live high/train low" regimen, which means residing at a high altitude and training at a low altitude. Many athletes worldwide now use this approach. According to Lorenzo, "heat acclimation is more practical, easier to apply and may yield more robust physiological adaptations."

(Photo credit: SlowTwitch.com)
The study was conducted in the Evonuk Environmental Physiology Core lab at the UO department of human physiology. The climatic chamber was set at 38 degrees Celsius (100 degrees Fahrenheit) for heat testing and 13 degrees Celsius (55 degrees Fahrenheit) for cool conditions with consistent humidity (30 percent relative humidity) for the cyclists' exercise tests.

According to Christopher Minson, co-director of the Evonuk lab, head of the UO human physiology department and study co-author, researchers also concluded that the heat may produce changes in the exercising muscle, including enzymatic changes that could improve the amount of work done by the muscle, but he says future research will have to examine it further.

"A next step is to determine whether heat acclimation improves performance in a competitive or real-world setting," said Minson.

He also notes possible implications for people with cardiac or other limitations such as paralysis that don't allow for the full cardiovascular benefits of exercise. If heat can be added, "it's conceivable that they would gain further cardiovascular benefits than exercise alone in a cool environment. These are exciting questions that deserve further study," said Minson.

Source: University of Oregon and S. Lorenzo, C. T. Minson. Heat Acclimation Improves Cutaneous Vascular Function and Sweating in Trained Cyclists. Journal of Applied Physiology, 2010; DOI: 10.1152/japplphysiol.00725.2010

See also: Too Much Altitude Training Can Hurt Athletic Performance and High Intensity Workout Gets The Job Done

Surfboard Sensor Success Stokes Scientists

UC San Diego mechanical engineering undergraduates
outfitted a surfboard with a computer and
accompanying sensors
Computers are everywhere these days -- even on surfboards. University of California, San Diego mechanical engineering undergraduates outfitted a surfboard with a computer and accompanying sensors -- one step toward a structural engineering Ph.D. student's quest to develop the science of surfboards.

The UC San Diego mechanical engineering undergraduates installed a computer and sensors on a surfboard and recorded the speed of the water flowing beneath the board. While the students surfed, the onboard computer sent water velocity information to a laptop on shore in real time.

This is part of Benjamin Thompson's quest to discover if surfboards have an optimal flexibility -- a board stiffness that makes surfing as enjoyable as possible. Thompson is a UC San Diego structural engineering Ph.D. student studying the fluid-structure interaction between surfboards and waves. By outfitting a surfboard with sensors and electronics that shuttle data back to shore, the mechanical engineering undergraduates built some of the technological foundation for Thompson's science-of-surfboards project.

Four undergraduates from the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering (MAE) at the UC San Diego Jacobs School of Engineering outfitted a surfboard with eight sensors and an onboard-computer or "microcontroller." The students dug trenches into the board's foam and ran wires connecting the sensors to the onboard computer. From this computer, the data travels via a wireless channel to a laptop on land -- in this case, a beach in Del Mar, Calif.

The onboard computer also saves the data on a memory card.

"We were stoked to get good data and to be surfing for school," said Dan Ferguson, one of the two mechanical engineering undergraduates who surfed while the onboard computer captured water velocity information and transmitted it back to land.

The four mechanical engineering majors built the wired surfboard for their senior design project, the culmination of the MAE 156 course sequence. Each project has a sponsor, and in this case, the sponsor was Benjamin Thompson, the structural engineering Ph.D. student from UC San Diego and founder of the surfboard Web site www.boardformula.com.

The onboard computer is in a watertight case the shape of a medium-sized box of chocolates. It sits at the front of the surfboard and glows blue. "What's on your board? What is that?" fellow surfers asked Ferguson. "We'd have to tell them it's a microprocessor connected to velocity sensors, and they would kind of nod and paddle away. It created a minor stir."

Each of the eight sensors embedded into the bottom of the board is a "bend sensor." The faster the water beneath the board moves, with respect to the board, the more the sensors bend, explained Trevor Owen, the other surfer on the four-person mechanical engineering team.

The data from the sensors runs through wires embedded in the board to the microcontroller. "You can see where we carved channels in the board," said Owen.

The most interesting part of the project for senior mechanical engineering major Victor Correa was using the microcontrollers and wireless transmitters to get the data to land.

Thompson, the project sponsor, is already working on a smaller version of the onboard computer. He hopes to shrink it down to the size of a cell phone and embed it flush with the top surface of the board.

Assembling, waterproofing and installing the microcontroller, connecting it to the sensors, and successfully transmitting the collected data to a computer on land required persistence and a lot of learning, explained senior mechanical engineering major Julia Tsai. "Everything hypothetically should take five minutes, but everything took at least three hours."

Even though the team has finished their class project, Ferguson plans to keep working with Thompson. "This project is going to apply some science that most likely [board] shapers understand pretty well...it's going to settle the debates. It's going to be black and white hard data to let them know for sure which ideas work, which concepts work, and why they work."

Surfboard Flex Surfboard flex refers to the temporary shape changes that surfboards are thought to undergo. While many surfers say flex makes their boards feel springy in the water, it has not been scientifically measured. Thompson hopes to scientifically document surfboard flex. Then he wants to determine if there is an amount of flexibility that enhances the performance and feel of a surfboard, and if this optimal flexibility depends on other factors such as surfer experience or wave conditions.

The surfboard project falls within a hot area of engineering research: the study of fluid-structure interactions. According to UC San Diego structural engineering professor Qiang Zhu, the study of fluid-structure interaction is important due to the large number of applications in mechanical, civil, aerospace and biological engineering. "In my opinion, its popularity in recent years is partly attributed to advances in experimental and computational techniques which allow many important processes to be studied in detail," said Zhu.

Source: University of California, San Diego

See also: Better Golf Ball Design Helps You Play Better Golf and For Rock Climbers, Endurance Is Key To Performance

Too Much Altitude Training Can Hurt Athletic Performance

New research suggests that athletes and footballers may want to limit the time they spend training at altitude to improve their performance. An Oxford University study has found that people with a rare condition that mimics being at high altitude for long periods show metabolic differences that actually reduce their endurance and physical performance.

The study is published in the journal PNAS and was funded by the British Heart Foundation and the Wellcome Trust.

Athletes from many endurance disciplines use altitude training as part of their yearly training programme. England footballers, as with many of the teams in the World Cup, spent time at altitude acclimatising for the competition in South Africa.

The body reacts to the low levels of oxygen at high altitude, first of all by breathing harder and the heart pumping more blood, but then through producing more red blood cells and increasing the density of blood vessels in the body's muscles. All of this serves to get more oxygen and fuel to the muscles.
However, an extended stay at altitude can bring a loss of the muscle's ability to use oxygen to carry out work. The number of mitochondria, the oxygen-using powerhouses of the cell, falls with a prolonged stay at high altitude.

"It is the higher capacity to deliver fuel to muscles that athletes are interested in," explains lead author Dr Federico Formenti of the Department of Physiology, Anatomy and Genetics at the University of Oxford. 'However, it's not clear how long they should train at altitude or how high up they need to be to get the optimal benefits."

A protein called hypoxia-inducible factor (HIF) is central to the body's response to high altitude. It is stimulated by low levels of oxygen and sets many of these processes in train.

The Oxford University researchers set out to study the metabolism of people with a rare genetic change that leads to continually high levels of HIF, even when levels of oxygen are normal. The increased levels of HIF mean that the condition -- called Chuvash polycythemia or CP -- is a good model for changes that occur in people who stay at high altitude for long periods.  CP can also offer insight into the fundamental processes where oxygen supply in the body is limited, such as in lung disease, heart disease, vascular disease and cancer.

Only around 20 people in the UK are known to have this mild condition. It is typically only diagnosed when a standard blood test shows increased numbers of red blood cells and further tests are done.

The team compared the performance of five people with CP with five matched controls. In an exercise bike test, in which study participants were asked to keep a constant pedal rate against a steadily increasing resistance, those with CP had to stop exercising earlier. The maximum work rate they achieved for their weight was 30% less than controls.

Studies of metabolites present in calf muscles under light exercise also indicated that CP patients experienced greater fatigue. Finally, there were differences in expression of metabolic genes in the CP patients' muscles. This could suggest their metabolism makes less efficient use of the fuel available and may explain their reduced exercise capacity.

"We found that the metabolism of CP patients is different and leads to poorer physical performance and endurance," says Dr Formenti. "Although this is a small study -- necessarily so because of there are so few people with the condition -- the results are striking. The differences seen in those with Chuvash polycythemia were large, and five patients were more than enough to see this effect."

"With the help of our volunteers with Chuvash polycythemia, we now understand these fundamental processes better. This understanding should eventually lead to better medical care in the many conditions where oxygen supply in the body is limited, such as heart disease and cancer,"
says principal investigator Professor Peter Robbins of Oxford University.

Source: University of Oxford and Regulation of human metabolism by hypoxia-inducible factor Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 2010

See also: Vancouver Olympians Prepared For High And Low Altitudes and High Intensity Workout Gets The Job Done

Goalkeepers Use Clues To Guess Direction Of Penalty Kick

In the split second before foot meets ball, a soccer player's body betrays whether a penalty kick will go left or right, according to recent research in cognitive science at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. The findings could explain how some top goalkeepers are able to head off a penalty kick, diving in the correct direction in advance of the kick. It could also point the way to changes in how players kick, and goalies react.

The research, performed by Rensselaer doctoral student Gabriel J. Diaz, employed motion capture technology and computer analysis to identify five early indicators of the direction a ball would ultimately be kicked. Diaz said his research stemmed from an observation of real-world penalty kicks, in which players aim for the left or right side of the goal while hiding their choice from the goalkeeper.

"When a goalkeeper is in a penalty situation, they can't wait until the ball is in the air before choosing whether to jump left or right -- a well-placed penalty kick will get past them," Diaz said. "As a consequence, you see goalkeepers jumping before the foot hits the ball. My question is: Are they making a choice better than chance (50/50), and if so, what kind of information might they be using to make their choice?"

Diaz tested 27 potential indicators of kick direction -- 12 drawn from sports literature and 15 derived from a computer analysis of the kicks -- and identified five as reliable indicators of the direction the ball will go.

In the second part of his work, Diaz also showed that four of the five early indicators he identified are used by people who are able to predict the direction of the kick before the foot strikes the ball.

Diaz used motion capture technology -- cameras, sensors, and software -- in Rensselaer Associate Professor Brett Fajen's Perception and Action (PandA) motion capture lab to record the movements of three college-level penalty kickers. The technology is similar to that used to create realistic movement in computer-generated graphics.

More than 40 sensors placed on 19 major joints of the body (and the ball) recorded the movements of the kickers as they stood behind the ball, took two steps, and kicked either to the left or of the right side of a goal. Diaz recorded 126 kicks, half to the left and half to the right.

Then he tested the data he collected against the suite of 27 potential indicators.

Twelve of the indicators -- such as the angles of the kicking foot, kicking upper-leg, and kicking shank -- were movements of a specific, or "local," area of the body highlighted by coaches and sports psychologists. Among them he found that two -- the angle at which the non-kicking foot is planted on the ground, and the angle of the hips as the kicking foot swings forward -- are reliable indicators of kick direction.

The 15 indicators identified in a computer analysis of the kicks were so-called "distributed movements" -- patterns of coordinated movement throughout the body. Three of the "distributed" movements proved to be reliable early indicators, none of which appears to have drawn previous attention in sports literature.

Emerging evidence in the study of motor control has pointed to a significant role for distributed movements, Diaz said. He described distributed movement as a combination of movements developed over many repeated attempts to perform a task, in this case kicking in a particular direction.

"When, for example, you shift the angle of your planted foot, perhaps in an attempt to hide the direction of the kick, you're changing your base of support. In order to maintain stability, maybe you have to do something else like move your arm. And it just happens naturally," Diaz said. "If this happens over and over again, over time your motor system may learn to move the arm at the same time as the foot. In this way the movement becomes one single distributed movement, rather than several sequential movements. A synergy is developed."

A distributed movement is complex, but, as Diaz's second experiment indicates, some people may be using it -- however unconsciously -- to inform their judgment as to which direction the ball will go.

In his second experiment, Diaz played an animation of the motion capture data to a group of 31 subjects, and asked the subjects to pick which direction they thought the ball would go. In the animation, each body joint is represented by a dot, and movement of the body is easily recognizable as such. The animation runs from the standing-start until the foot reaches the ball, at which point the screen goes black and subjects pressed a button to the left or right of the screen, indicating which direction they thought the ball had gone.

Among his 31 subjects, all of whom were novices to the activity, 15 were not able to score above chance (50/50), even when given one-half second after the scene to ponder the outcome. Sixteen, however, did perform better than chance.

Diaz then looked for relationships between successful judgments on ball direction and each of the "local" and "distributed" movements he had tracked. His analysis revealed strong correlations between the two "local" and two of the three "distributed movements" that were reliable indicators of kick direction.

"The question is, knowing these potential sources of reliable information, what do people actually use?" Diaz said. "I found four reliable sources that were well correlated with subjects' judgments."

Another finding, he said, is that the 16 successful subjects waited longer than the 15 unsuccessful subjects to make their choices (if the half-second elapsed without a response from the subject, no result was entered).

"There is a clear relationship between response timing and performance," Diaz said.

Diaz said his findings have set the stage for further exploration. He would like to create a training regime to guide subjects' attention toward more reliable indicators of kick direction. He also wants to know if professional goalkeepers would perform better than novices on the task.

Similar studies using video data of penalty kicks among professional Dutch goalkeepers showed that not all professional players are better than novice subjects, he said.

"Only a subset are better than average. I want to know -- what is it that these successful experts are doing better than novices?"

Source:  Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

 See also: How Nerves Affect Soccer Penalty Kicks and Soccer Referees Biased Against Tall Players

Will The Jabulani Bend At The World Cup?

Physics experts at the University of Adelaide believe the new ball created for the 2010 World Cup, called the Jabulani, will play "harder and faster," bending more unpredictably than its predecessor.  But why? And what will it mean for the game?

"The Jabulani is textured with small ridges and 'aero grooves' and represents a radical departure from the ultra-smooth Teamgeist ball, which was used in the last World Cup," says Professor Derek Leinweber, Head of the School of Chemistry & Physics at the University of Adelaide, who has previously written about and lectured on the aerodynamics of cricket balls, golf balls and the 2006 World Cup soccer ball, the Teamgeist.

Along with student Adrian Kiratidis, Professor Leinweber has been reviewing the physics behind soccer balls and what that means for the Jabulani. Adrian is also a soccer enthusiast.

"While the governing body FIFA has strict regulations on the size and weight of the balls, they have no regulations about the outside surface of the balls," Professor Leinweber says.

"The Teamgeist was a big departure at the last World Cup. Because it was very smooth -- much smoother than a regular soccer ball -- it had a tendency to bend more than the conventional ball and drop more suddenly at the end of its trajectory.

"By comparison, the aerodynamic ridges on the Jabulani are likely to create enough turbulence around the ball to sustain its flight longer, and be a faster, harder ball in play.

"The Jabulani is expected to 'bend' more for the players than any ball previously encountered. Players are also discovering new opportunities to move the ball in erratic ways, alarming the world's best goalkeepers. By the time the ball reaches the goalkeeper, the Jabulani will have swerved and dipped, arriving with more power and energy than the Teamgeist."

University of Adelaide students have also put the new World Cup soccer ball to the test on the soccer field. Based on Professor Leinweber's theories, they've attempted to "bend" the Jabulani and have also kicked the Teamgeist and a regular soccer ball for comparison.

Source: University of Adelaide

See also: Soccer Robots Are Getting Smarter At RoboCup and Soccer Referees Biased Against Tall Players

New Video Games Help Blind Kids Play

VI Fit, a project at the University of Nevada, Reno, helps children who are blind become more physically active and healthy through video games. The human-computer interaction research team in the computer science and engineering department has developed a motion-sensing-based tennis and bowling exergame.

"Lack of vision forms a significant barrier to participation in physical activity and consequently children with visual impairments have much higher obesity rates and obesity-related illnesses such as diabetes," Eelke Folmer, research team leader and assistant professor in the computer science and engineering department, said.

"Exergames" are a new type of video game that use physical activity as input and are considered powerful weapons in the fight against obesity. Unfortunately, exergames have not yet been accessible to children with visual impairments, although it is evident they could benefit from them the most.
"Our games are adaptations of the popular Nintendo Wii Sports exercise games that have been modified so they can be played without visual feedback," Folmer said.

VI Tennis and VI Bowling are the first of several games to be made available. VI Tennis implements the gameplay of Wii sports tennis providing audio and vibrotactile cues that indicate when to serve and when to return the ball. It can be played against the computer or against a friend using two Wii remotes.

"VI Tennis was evaluated at Camp Abilities in New York with 13 children who were blind," Folmer said. "We found our game to engage children into levels of active energy expenditure that were high enough to be considered healthy, which shows the feasibility of using video games as a health-intervention method."

The gameplay of Wii sports bowling is implemented through VI Bowling with a novel motor-learning feature that allows players to find the direction in which to throw their ball using vibrotactile feedback. Audio and speech effects are used to indicate the result of each throw. VI Bowling was evaluated with six adults and was found to yield levels of active energy expenditure that are comparable to walking.

Compared to the general population, individuals with visual impairments have even fewer opportunities to engage in physical activities that provide the amounts and kinds of stimulation needed to maintain adequate fitness and support a healthy standard of living. Folmer and his team are exploring alternative forms of interaction that allow individuals with visual impairments to play exercise games and to increase their participation in physical activity.

To play the VI Fit games, a user would need a Wii remote and a Windows PC with bluetooth support or a USB bluetooth dongle. The games can be downloaded using instructions at www.vifit.org. The games are not affiliated with or endorsed by Nintendo.

Source:  University of Nevada, Reno

See also: How To See A 130 MPH Tennis Serve and Video Games Move From The Family Room To The Locker Room

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Exercise Pumps Up Your Brain

Regular exercise speeds learning and improves blood flow to the brain, according to a new study led by researchers from the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine that is the first to examine these relationships in a non-human primate model. The findings are available in the journal Neuroscience.

While there is ample evidence of the beneficial effects of exercise on cognition in other animal models, such as the rat, it has been unclear whether the same holds true for people, said senior author Judy L. Cameron, Ph.D., a psychiatry professor at Pitt School of Medicine and a senior scientist at the Oregon National Primate Research Center at Oregon Health and Science University. Testing the hypothesis in monkeys can provide information that is more comparable to human physiology.

"We found that monkeys who exercised regularly at an intensity that would improve fitness in middle-aged people learned to do tests of cognitive function faster and had greater blood volume in the brain's motor cortex than their sedentary counterparts," Dr. Cameron said. "This suggests people who exercise are getting similar benefits."

For the study, the researchers trained adult female cynomolgus monkeys to run on a human-sized treadmill at 80 percent of their individual maximal aerobic capacity for one hour each day, five days per week, for five months. Another group of monkeys remained sedentary, meaning they sat on the immobile treadmill, for a comparable time. Half of the runners went through a three-month sedentary period after the exercise period. In all groups, half of the monkeys were middle aged (10 to 12 years old) and the others were more mature (15 to 17 years old). Initially, the middle-aged monkeys were in better shape than their older counterparts, but with exercise, all the runners became more fit.

During the fifth week of exercise training, standardized cognitive testing was initiated and then performed five days per week until week 24. In a preliminary task, the monkeys learned that by lifting a cover off a small well in the testing tray, they could have the food reward that lay within it. In a spatial delay task, a researcher placed a food reward in one of two wells and covered both wells in full view of the monkey. A screen was lowered to block the animal's view for a second, and then raised again. If the monkey displaced the correct cover, she got the treat. After reliably succeeding at this task, monkeys that correctly moved the designated one of two different objects placed over side-by-side wells got the food reward that lay within it.

"Monkeys that exercised learned to remove the well covers twice as quickly as control animals," Dr. Cameron said. "Also, they were more engaged in the tasks and made more attempts to get the rewards, but they also made more mistakes."

She noted that later in the testing period, learning rate and performance was similar among the groups, which could mean that practice at the task will eventually overshadow the impact of exercise on cognitive function.

When the researchers examined tissue samples from the brain's motor cortex, they found that mature monkeys that ran had greater vascular volume than middle-aged runners or sedentary animals. But those blood flow changes reversed in monkeys that were sedentary after exercising for five months.

"These findings indicate that aerobic exercise at the recommended levels can have meaningful, beneficial effects on the brain," Dr. Cameron said. "It supports the notion that working out is good for people in many, many ways."

Source: University of Pittsburgh Schools of the Health Sciences.

See also: Take Your Brain To The Gym and Boomer Brains Need Exercise