Training Your Eyes To Hit That Curveball

Training Your Eyes To Hit That Curveball

“Just keep your eye on the ball.”  Seems like simple enough advice for a young slugger at the plate.  That may work in the early years of Little League baseball when the pitches they see  have not yet cracked 50 mph. 

But as the fastballs get faster and the change-ups get slower, having quick eyes and an even quicker perceptual brain is the only way hitters will be able to “hit it square” with a round bat and a round ball.  

Which is exactly why psychology researchers at the University of California - Riverside (UCR) teamed up with the college’s varsity baseball players; to see if advanced visual perception training could help their at-bat performance.  While previous vision training research had focused on strengthening a player’s specific eye muscles, the results never transferred well to the batter’s box.  UCR professors

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For Aaron Rodgers, Practice Makes Perfect Motor Skills

During a Green Bay Packers win over the Atlanta Falcons earlier this season, Peter King, the NFL's dean of sportswriters, found a new level of respect for quarterback Aaron Rodgers.  Here's how King  described one particular third and two play late in the first quarter:

"At the snap, Rodgers’ first look, a long one, was to the left for Nelson. Well covered. Quickly Rodgers turned to the right, to where Cobb was planting his foot in the ground three or four yards upfield and preparing to run a simple in-cut; at the same time, his cover man, cornerback Desmond Trufant, was going to have get through traffic to get to the ball if Rodgers was going to make the throw to Cobb."

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How Video Games Can Improve Your Kids' Hand-Eye Coordination

Well, there goes that golden piece of parental logic.  For years, we’ve been arguing, imploring and threatening our kids to get off their Xbox, PS4 or even Wiis (are those still around?) and get outside for some fresh air and reality.  It isn’t healthy, we argued, to sit in front of that TV and play video games for hours.  While we still have the cardiovascular argument in our corner, new research just confirmed that gaming actually improves our kids’ ability to learn new sensorimotor skills.

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Maybe Your Kids Inherited Your Couch Potato Genes

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

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

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

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See The Game Through The Eyes Of The Quarterback

Going into the start of football season, there is plenty of expert commentary on what makes up the “right stuff” when evaluating quarterbacks. Everything from arm strength to height to foot skills to the size of their hands was measured and dissected to find the magic combination of variables. While the body mechanics of delivering a football on target are vital, QBs rely even more on their vision both before and after the ball is snapped.

It’s not just knowing where and when to look at an opposing defense but also understanding what to look for across the line. Defensive players are taught to “read the eyes” of the quarterback to gain clues to the play call. Coaches ask their QBs, “What are you seeing out there?” or “Where were you looking on that play?” Now, with the help of an innovative helmet cam, coaches, players and maybe even fans can get behind the mask and get answers to those questions.

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How To Train The Runner's Brain - An Interview With Jason Fitzgerald

As productive human athletes, we just assume that we can knock down any walls put in front of us and conquer new feats of greatness if "we just put our mind to it."  Our conscious brain sets goals, gives pep talks and convinces us that with the right training plan, we can finish a race of any distance. 

But, when we're stretching our training run farther than ever before, the little voice in our head pops up to try to talk some sense into us; "that's enough for today" or "there's a lot of pain happening right now, time to quit."  

As I discussed in last week's post about the central governor theory, neuropsychologists are finding new ways to acknowledge and actually train the conscious brain to ignore or at least delay the stop orders coming from the subconscious, physiological control center.

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From Fighter Pilots To Hockey Players, Cognitive Training Gets Results

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

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

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How Neuroplasticity Helped Get The Red Sox Into The World Series

Its the stuff every young baseball player dreams of - down by a run in the bottom of the 7th inning with the bases loaded in game 6 of the American League Championship Series.  With a chance to become a legend, Red Sox outfielder Shane Victorino tried to focus at the plate.  "I was just trying to tie the game," Victorino told ESPN. "I wasn't thinking grand slam, hit it out of the park, any of that. I was just trying to put the ball in play, to give us another chance."

Instead, he launched an 0-2 pitch from right-handed pitcher Jose Veras over the Green Monster in left field for a grand slam, giving the Sox a 5-2 lead over the Detroit Tigers.  The lead would hold up sending Boston to the World Series against the St. Louis Cardinals

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thank you, David and good luck with the book!

Remind Your Brain That You Can Hit This Pitch

Baseball hitting strategy is usually taught as a logical, almost statistical thought process. Depending on the score of the game, runners on base, the number of outs and the current count, the batter can make an educated guess as to what pitch will be thrown next.  This cues the visual system to expect a certain release point, speed and location of the ball.  

But what about the emotions of the game?  Do the possible positive and negative outcomes affect a hitter’s ability to see the right pitch?  According to new research, the reward that you associate with a visual stimuli can help improve your ability to quickly identify that object.

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How To Train The Batter's Brain To Reduce Strikeouts

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

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

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

Don't Worry, Tony Parker Will Find You

Tony Parker
After the San Antonio Spurs clinched their trip to the NBA Finals, Tim Duncan was asked to describe the contributions of his point guard, Tony Parker.  “Every year he just gets better and better and better,” he commented to the press. “I told him I'm just riding his coattails.”  High praise indeed from a four-time NBA champion and 14-time All-Star.

Duncan’s remarks add to the growing opinion that Parker is the
 best postseason point guard in NBA history.  Whether its his scoring touch, 37 points in Game 4 against Memphis, or his vision on the court, a career best 18 assists in Game 2, Parker has the ability to see what is available in front of him to help his team.  This specialized court vision is rare and originates from a specialized area of the brain, according to new research.
As you watch the video below of Parker’s amazing performance in Game 2, notice the angles and speed with which he has to not only see teammates but then get the ball out his hands.  Vision, reaction, decision and action all happen in a split second.

"Behind what seems to be automatic is a lot of sophisticated machinery in our brain," said Miguel Eckstein, professor in UC Santa Barbara's Department of Psychological & Brain Sciences. "A great part of our brain is dedicated to vision."
Eckstein’s research group recently explored how humans are able to pick out certain objects in a crowded scene (say, for example, Tim Duncan under the basket).  They flashed (250 ms) 640 indoor and outdoor scenes on a screen for volunteer test observers, then asked them to find a certain object in the scene (i.e. a clock in a bedroom scene or a surfer in a beach scene).  In half of the images, the target object was not there.  While they searched the images for the targets, the volunteers’ eye movements were tracked as well as their brain’s electrical activity through the use of a functional MRI machine.
While the volunteers successfully found the target objects 80% of the time that they were in the scene, they were not aware that some of the scenes did not contain the object.  By watching where they focused their gaze to find the object, the researchers discovered that the brain uses logical, contextual clues.  If searching for a surfer, they would look on the water, not the beach; if searching for a truck in a street scene, they fixated on the street, not the sidewalk.  In the image below, the yellow-orange dots show where the person fixed their gaze to find the target object (click for a larger image).
While this seems obvious to us, it is this contextual form of visual searching that computer algorithms still cannot accomplish due to the enormous amount of real world knowledge that we take for granted.
"So, if you're looking for a computer mouse on a cluttered desk, a machine would be looking for things shaped like a mouse. It might find it, but it might see other objects of similar shape, and classify that as a mouse," Eckstein said.
The fMRI images showed that an area of the brain called the lateral occipital complex (LOC) is most active during the test subjects’ scene search.  It is this group of neurons that provides clues to us of the most likely place to look for certain objects.  In the same way, by knowing the Spurs offense and through years of drills and practice, Parker’s LOC can suggest the most logical places to search for teammates and the difference between them and opponents.
The research appears in the Journal of Neuroscience.
“A large component of becoming an expert searcher is exploiting contextual relationships to search,” commented Eckstein. “Thus, understanding the neural basis of contextual guidance might allow us to gain a better understanding about what brain areas are critical to gain search expertise.”
Training an athlete’s visual search skill is critical to success on the court or the field.  Only repetition will provide the LOC with the rich database of contextual scenes needed to spot a curveball, a blitzing linebacker or even Manu Ginóbili on a back door cut.

The Neuroscience Of Pitch Recognition

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

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

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

Why The Best Soccer Players Are Real Head Turners

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

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

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

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Thinking Faster Wins Olympic Medals For Brazil Volleyball

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

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

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

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Vision Research Gives Clues How Receivers Survive NFL Combine Drills

Dee Milliner
One of the most challenging and entertaining workout drills at this weekend’s NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis is the Gauntlet Drill for wide receivers and tight ends.  Whether or not it relates to real NFL success is debated but it does provide a true test of hand-eye coordination and the ability to change focus while on the move.
Obviously, being able to instantly pick up the flight of a thrown football is key for receivers but also is important for defensive backs who need to turn their heads at the last moment to find a pass.  Now, vision researchers at Tübingen University in Germany have shown that humans actually use extremely small eye movements, called microsaccades, to achieve what’s more commonly known as peripheral vision.

In this NFL video, uber-analyst Mike Mayock provides a great overview of the Gauntlet Drill.  Receivers run straight down a yard line while receiving a series of passes from alternating sides.  The key is to change your focus quickly on the fly.
Here's Florida State's Rodney Smith completing the drill at the 2013 Combine.

As a player takes in the field with his vision, it appears to him as a smooth scan of the environment.  In reality, humans make quick, darting glances, called saccades, at different targets.  Its like our eyes see a movie shot at 3 frames a second while our brain perceives a scene at 30 frames per second.
In between these longer saccades are millisecond movements, microsaccades, that are believed to help the brain fill in missing information from the scene and prepare the eyes for an upcoming shift in focus.
"Microsaccades are sort of enigmatic," said Ziad Hafed, the leader of the Physiology of Active Vision Group. “They are movements of the eye which occur at exactly the moment when we are trying to look at something steadily -- i.e., when we are trying to prevent our eyes from moving.”
In the video link below (click to play), from his lab, you can see the microsaccades when the blue focus point changes from blue to red, while the test volunteer tries to keep their eyes fixed on the crosshair.

In describing how our vision and brain work together, Hafed used a soccer analogy. "Imagine that you are the coach of a (soccer) team," Hafed said. "You would normally ask your defenders to spread out across the field in order to provide good coverage during match play. However, in preparation for an upcoming corner kick by your opposing team, you would reorganize your defenders, assigning two of them to become temporary goalkeepers and protect the goal. What I found was evidence for a similar strategy in the visual brain before microsaccades.”
Late last year, Hafed’s research group found that microsaccades actually assist with peripheral vision or the perceived ability to look at two different things at once.  He asked test volunteers to focus on a small cursor on a computer screen while he measured their eye movements with a camera pointed at their retinas.  Then, he added another target off to the right or left of the cursor and measured the microsaccades that occurred immediately before the shift of focus, much like the driver’s vision test we take where we are asked if we see a blinking light on our right or left side of our vision field.
By analyzing the timing of the microsaccades with the correct answers of the volunteers, Hafed realized there was a purpose for these tiny eye movements to prep the brain for the next shift of focus.
The study appears in the latest issue of Neuron.
Back to our football catching drill, when the receivers turn their head while running, their first focus may be on the quarterback but then the in-flight ball appears in the periphery and their next saccade is towards the ball.  Athletic eyes that have been well trained by practice and vision drills will outperform those with less agile vision.  While fast 40-yard dash times and soft hands are important to a receiver, their visual system performance should not be overlooked.
Check out the Axon Sports iPad app that players are training with at the Combine this year.

Why Ray Allen Keeps Practicing

On his way to becoming an Olympic gold medalist, a 10-time NBA All-Star and the NBA’s all-time leader in 3-point baskets made, Ray Allen picked up a certain shooting practice routine.  Not when he was a rookie, or at the University of Connecticut or in high school, but when he was eight years old.  He had to make five right-handed layups then five left-handed layups before he could leave the gym.  If he ran out of time or was forced off the court by others, “I cried,” he told the Boston Globe. “It messed up my day.”

Over the years, given his success, he might be forgiven if he gave the routine a day off, relying on thousands of previous shots to keep the motor skill alive in his brain and his muscles.  But researchers at the University of Colorado may have now discovered why Allen’s insistence to practice beyond perfection continues to yield a return on his investment of time.

Earlier this year, before Allen departed for Miami, Brian Babineau, team photographer for Boston’s Celtics and Bruins, set out to capture Allen’s obsession with his pre-game ritual in a more meaningful way then folklore or photos.  He filmed an entire shootaround trying to capture Allen’s extreme focus on his craft.
“I wanted to show the seriousness of his pre game shooting ritual, his amazing focus and I wanted to imagine what it was like to be in his mind while he was doing it,” Babineau told ESPN. “Once he starts his shooting sets, you can see he’s in the zone, where everything is black and white. Once he finishes a set, there is a short moment of reality until he starts his next set with the same focus and determination. This goes on for his entire routine, at all the same shooting spots on the court, for every game … and he’s been doing this for years.”

While no one has kept track, it would be a safe bet that Allen has surpassed the infamous 10,000 hours of structured practice to reach world class status.  Indeed, he has become the best at what he does and he’s not buying the notion that he was born with “God-given” skills to play basketball. He described that idea as “an insult.” “God could care less whether I can shoot a jump shot.”
So, what’s the point of this endless devotion to practice?  Are there additional benefits that we can’t see on the surface?  A group of neuromechanic researchers at the Integrative Physiology lab at the University of Colorado-Boulder recently found that we can make subtle improvements in efficiency in our motor skill actions even after we’ve mastered the muscular movements of the task.
They asked a group of volunteers to learn to manipulate a mechanical arm so that it would move a cursor on a screen to a target area.  Learning this novel task involved vision, arm movements and repeated feedback to succeed.  After 200 trials to learn the basics, a force field was added to push back on the mechanical arm enough to force a quick adjustment and update to the skill that had just been figured out.  Even after the volunteers had learned to move the cursor, they kept repeating the skill over 500 times.
During this entire learning process, the test subjects’ muscular activity was measured through electrodes on six arm muscles while their breathing was tracked through a mouthpiece.  Surprisingly, during the experiment, the metabolic rates of the volunteers continued to decline even after their muscular activity had leveled off.  In other words, the brain-body cost to performing the task became more efficient over time, even after the muscles showed that the task had been mastered.
“We suspect that the decrease in metabolic cost may involve more efficient brain activity,” Alaa Ahmed, assistant professor at CU, said. “The brain could be modulating subtle features of arm muscle activity, recruiting other muscles or reducing its own activity to make the movements more efficiently.”
Their research appears in the Journal of Neuroscience.
Shooting three point shots throughout a heated, loud, draining NBA game is certainly a tough test of a player's brain-body efficiency.  If Ray Allen can save just a fraction of metabolic energy through the fine tuning of his skill set, it may be just the edge he needs.
“The message from this study is that in order to perform with less effort, keep on practicing, even after it seems as if the task has been learned,” said Ahmed. “We have shown there is an advantage to continued practice beyond any visible changes in performance.”
Practice works.  Just ask Ray Allen.
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How Cristiano Ronaldo Sees The Ball

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

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

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

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

You Can't Hit What You Can't See

Warren Spahn
Hall of Fame pitcher Warren Spahn never studied biomechanics or captured 3D motion capture of the batters he faced, but he knew a lot about the science of strikeouts.  “Hitting is timing.  Pitching is upsetting timing,” Spahn stated decades ago. “”A pitcher needs two pitches, one they’re looking for and one to cross them up.” After all of these years, ASMI biomechanist Dave Fortenbaugh has put this theory to the test in his lab.

With less than a second to see the pitch, identify its speed and location then execute an intercepting swing of the bat, a baseball player’s margin of error can be milliseconds or millimeters.  Since most of the bat speed and power of the swing comes from the weight transfer and rotational speed of the hitter’s body, it is critical that the entire process starts at just the right time so that bat connects with the ball in the perfect horizontal and vertical planes.
Fortenbaugh, whose Ph.D. dissertation was titled “The Biomechanics of the Baseball Swing, set out to see what physically changed about a hitter’s swing when he faced pitches of different speeds.  In new research published in Sports Biomechanics, he and his team gathered 29 professional baseball players (minor league AA) to observe and record the physics of their swings.

Their focus was on a key force for any human movement known as the ground reaction force or GRF.  When you stand still, your feet create a force on the ground equal to your weight.  At the same time, following Newton’s Third Law of Motion, the ground creates an equal and opposite force on your feet, aka the GRF.  When moving, a person’s feet create not only a GRF in the vertical direction but also one horizontally.

Hitting coaches use this force to stabilize a batter’s feet while their weight is shifting from the back foot to the front foot, or from the right foot to the left foot for a right-handed batter.  Fortenbaugh hypothesized that when batters get fooled by a change in pitch speed, the timing of their step and weight shift gets thrown off causing the bat to come through at the wrong time.

For the experiment, the players were asked to face either fastballs or changeups thrown by a live pitcher.  They placed each of their feet on a force plate which measured the level and timing of the force applied as compared to the timing of the ball arriving.

Hitters are often coached to expect every pitch to be a fastball, then adjust if they see something slower.  If they don’t recognize an off-speed pitch soon enough, they will begin their biomechanical process too early, throwing off the eventual swing and contact with the ball.

What the researchers found was that the back foot force stayed roughly the same for either fastballs or changeups.  This would be expected as a player’s weight starts here.
However, for the front foot, the results were significantly different.  As Fortenbaugh concluded, “The batter applied maximum vertical and horizontal braking forces earlier for a successfully hit changeup than a successfully hit fastball, and even earlier for an unsuccessful swing against a changeup. This may be an indication that the batter is fooled a little when successfully recognizing a changeup in adequate time and fooled quite a bit more on unsuccessful swings when this recognition occurs too late.”

Because they weren’t able to identify the slower changeup earlier, they started their swing motion too soon.  For every hitter, specialized visual and cognitive training to recognize pitch types sooner would buy them the valuable milliseconds they need.

The big takeaway from all of this?  “This study provides biomechanical evidence that an effective off-speed pitch, as postulated, upsets a hitter’s timing,” states Fortenbaugh. “The data in this study also support the claim of the difficulty of hitting a baseball well, as literally just tiny fractions of a second separated the successful and unsuccessful swings.”
In other words, Spahn was right.

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Michel Bruyninckx Trains Soccer Brains

Michel Bruyninckx
When describing what’s wrong with today’s youth soccer coaching, Michel Bruyninckx points to his head. “We need to stop thinking football is only a matter of the body,” the 59-year old Belgian Uefa A license coach and Standard Liège academy director recently told the BBC. “Skillfulness will only grow if we better understand the mental part of developing a player. Cognitive readiness, improved perception, better mastering of time and space in combination with perfect motor functioning.”

We’re not talking about dribbling around orange cones here.  Bruyninckx’s approach, which he dubs “brain centered learning” borrows heavily from the constructivist theory of education that involves a total immersion of the student in the learning activity.

In fact, there are three components to the related concept of “brain based” teaching:
  • Orchestra immersion – the idea that the student must be thrown into the pool of the learning experience so that they are fully immersed in the experience.
  • Relaxed alertness – a way of providing a challenging environment for the student but not have them stressed out by the chance of error.
  • Active processing – the means by which a student can constantly process information in different ways so that it is ingrained in his neural pathways, allowing them to consolidate and internalize the new material.
This “training from the neck up” approach is certainly different than the traditional emphasis on technical skills and physical fitness.  The brain seems to be the last frontier for sports training and others are starting to take note of it.

“I think that coaches either forget, or don’t even realise, that football is a hugely cognitive sport,” said the Uefa-A licence coach Kevin McGreskin in a recent Sports Illustrated story. “We’ve got to develop the players’ brains as well as their bodies but it’s much easier to see and measure the differences we make to a player’s physiology than we can with their cognitive attributes.”

At the Standard Liège facility outside of Brussels, Bruyninckx currently coaches about 68 players between the age of 12 and 19, who have been linked with first and second division Belgian clubs.  If there was any question if his methods are effective, about 25% of the 100 or so players that he has coached have turned pro.  By comparison, according to the Professional Footballers’ Association, of the 600 boys joining pro clubs at age 16, 500 are out of the game by age 21.

His training tactics try to force the players’ brains to constantly multitask so that in-game decision making can keep up with the pace of the game.  ”You have to present new activities that players are not used to doing. If you repeat exercises too much the brain thinks it knows the answers,” Bruyninckx added. “By constantly challenging the brain and making use of its plasticity you discover a world that you thought was never available. Once the brain picks up the challenge you create new connections and gives remarkable results.”

The geometry of the game is stressed through most training exercises.  Soccer is a game of constantly changing angles which need to be instantly analyzed and used before the opportunity closes.  Finding these angles has to be a reaction from hours of practice since there is no time to search during a game.

“Football is an angular game and needs training of perception — both peripheral sight and split vision,” said Bruyninckx. “Straight, vertical playing increases the danger of losing the ball. If a team continuously plays the balls at angles at a very high speed it will be quite impossible to recover the ball. The team rhythm will be so high that your opponent will never get into the match.”

Certainly, brain-centered learning faces enormous inertia among the coaching establishment.  Still, for those teams looking for the extra edge, the Bruyninckx method is gaining fans. “Michel’s methods and philosophy touch on the last frontier of developing world-class individuals on and off the field – the brain,” respected tennis coach Pete McCraw stated. “His methods transcend current learning frameworks and challenge traditional beliefs of athlete development in team sports.  It is pioneering work, better still it has broad applications across many sporting disciplines.”

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