Sports Science

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.
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 Billy 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.” 
Thankfully,the NFL Draft and all its hype is behind us.  The matchmaking is complete but the guessing game begins as to which team picked the right combination of athletic skill, mental toughness and leadership potential in their player selections.  Hundreds of hours of game film can be broken down to grade performance with X’s and O’s.  Objective athletic tests at the NFL combine rank the NCAA football draftees by speed and strengths, just as the infamous Wonderlic intelligence test tries to rank their brain power.  
Unless you are a true baseball fan, you have probably never heard of Bob Feller.   Maybe you have heard of Nolan Ryan.   They were classic power pitchers.   They threw hard and they threw for strikes.

Even if you are a baseball fan, unless you live and breathe the Detroit Tigers, you have probably never heard of Joel Zumaya.

Right.  Who?    While playing in the American League Championship in 2006, he threw a fastball clocked at 104.8 MPH, the fastest in history.      How can a guy who threw that fast not be on the cover of every Wheaties box in the civilized world?    Because the following year he was 1-4 with a 4.28 ERA; hardly the stuff of legends.
When it comes to improving your golf game, you can spend thousands of dollars buying the latest titanium-induced, PGA player-promoted golf clubs; taking private lessons from the local "I used to be on the Tour" pro; or trying every slice-correcting, swing-speed-estimating, GPS-distance-guessing gadget. But, in the end, it’s about getting that little white sphere to go where you intended it to go.

Don't worry, there are many very smart people trying to help you by designing the ultimate golf ball. Of course, they are also after a slice of this billion dollar industry, as any technological advancement that can grab a few more market share points is worth the investment.

With the MLB League Championship Series beginning this week,  Twenty-six teams are wondering what it takes to reach the "final four" of baseball which leads to the World Series.  The Red Sox, Rays, Phillies and Dodgers understand its not just money and luck.  Over 162 games, it usually comes down to the fundamentals of baseball: pitching, hitting and catching.  That sounds simple enough.  So, why can't everyone execute those skills consistently?  Why do pitchers struggle with their control?  Why do batters strike out?  Why do fielders commit errors?  It turns out Yogi Berra was right when he said, "Baseball is 90% mental, and the other half is physical."  In this three part series, each skill will be broken down into its cognitive sub-tasks and you may be surprised at the complexity that such a simple game requires of our brains.

A player can feel it during a game when they hit a game-changing home run or when they go 0 for 4 at the plate. A team can feel it when they come back from a deficit late in the game or when their lead in the division vanishes. A fan can feel it as their team "catches fire" or goes "as cold as ice". And, play-by-play announcers love to talk about it.

We know it as the "Big Mo", the "Hot Hand", and being "In The Zone" while the psychologists call it Psychological Momentum. But, does it really exist? Is it just a temporary shift in confidence and mood or does it actually change the outcome of a game or a season? As expected, there are lots of opinions available.

Maybe its the fear of turning 40. Maybe its the feeling of unfinished business. Maybe its the fire in the belly that has not quite extinguished. For retired elite athletes, the itch is always there to make a return after experiencing "life after sport". For some, it becomes too strong to ignore.

This year has seen the return of at least three champions, Dara Torres, Lance Armstrong and Brett Favre. As they explain their individual reasons for coming back, some similarities emerge that have more to do with psychological needs than practical needs.

In a recent Miami Herald article, Torres explained her comeback to competitive swimming at age 41, "For me, it's not like I sat around and watched swimming on TV and thought, `Oh, I wish I was still competing'. It was more gradual. But all of a sudden, something goes off inside you and you start seriously thinking about a comeback. You'd think the competitive fire would die down with maturity, but I've actually gotten worse. I wasn't satisfied with silver medals. I hate to lose now more than I did in my 20s. I'm still trying to figure out why.''

 If there is a poster child sport for our favorite phrase, "Sports Are 80 Percent Mental", it must be golf. Maybe its the slow pace of play that gives us plenty of time to think between shots. Maybe its the "on stage" performance feeling we get when we step up to that first tee in front of our friends (or strangers!) Maybe its the "high" of an amazing approach shot that lands 3 feet from the cup followed by the "low" of missing the birdie putt. From any angle, a golf course is the sport psychologist's laboratory to study the mix of emotions, confidence, skill execution and internal cognitive processes that are needed to avoid buying rounds at the 19th hole. In Putt With Your Brain - Part 1, we looked at some of the recent research on putting mechanics but, as promised, we now turn to the mental side of putting. Sian Beilock and her team at the University of Chicago's Human Performance Lab recently released the latest of a string of research studies on sports performance, or more specifically, how not to choke under pressure. Lucky for us, they chose putting as their sport skill of choice. This ties in with Dr. Beilock's theory of embodied cognition that we featured in Watching Sports Is Good For Your Brain.

An underlying theme to this work is the concept of automaticity, or the ability to carry out sport skills without consciously thinking about them. Performing below expectations (i.e. choking) starts when we allow our minds to step out of this automatic mode and start thinking about the steps to our putting stroke and all of those "swing thoughts" that come with it ("keep your elbows in", "head down", "straight back"). Our brain over analyzes and second-guesses the motor skills we have learned from hundreds of practice putts.

 If there is a poster child sport for our favorite phrase, "Sports Are 80 Percent Mental", it must be golf. Maybe its the slow pace of play that gives us plenty of time to think between shots. Maybe its the "on stage" performance feeling we get when we step up to that first tee in front of our friends (or strangers!) Maybe its the "high" of an amazing approach shot that lands 3 feet from the cup followed by the "low" of missing the birdie putt. From any angle, a golf course is the sport psychologist's laboratory to study the mix of emotions, confidence, skill execution and internal cognitive processes that are needed to avoid buying rounds at the 19th hole. In Putt With Your Brain - Part 1, we looked at some of the recent research on putting mechanics but, as promised, we now turn to the mental side of putting. Sian Beilock and her team at the University of Chicago's Human Performance Lab recently released the latest of a string of research studies on sports performance, or more specifically, how not to choke under pressure. Lucky for us, they chose putting as their sport skill of choice. This ties in with Dr. Beilock's theory of embodied cognition that we featured in Watching Sports Is Good For Your Brain.

An underlying theme to this work is the concept of automaticity, or the ability to carry out sport skills without consciously thinking about them. Performing below expectations (i.e. choking) starts when we allow our minds to step out of this automatic mode and start thinking about the steps to our putting stroke and all of those "swing thoughts" that come with it ("keep your elbows in", "head down", "straight back"). Our brain over analyzes and second-guesses the motor skills we have learned from hundreds of practice putts.

 If Mark Twain thinks golf is "a good walk spoiled", then putting must be a brief pause to make you reconsider ever walking again. With about 50% of our score being determined on the green, we are constantly in search of the "secret" to getting the little white ball to disappear into the cup. Lucky for us, there is no shortage of really smart people also looking for the answer. The first 8 months of 2008 have been no exception, with a golf cart full of research papers on just the topic of putting. Is the secret in the mechanics of the putt stroke or maybe the cognitive set-up to the putt or even the golfer's psyche when stepping up to the ball? This first post will focus on the mechanical side and then we'll follow-up next time with a look inside the golfer's mind.