Athletes and modes of consciousness

I was watching a basketball game the other day (UNC defeating Clemson 77-55) and I was contemplating how the announcers would often remark on a player's focus when shooting from the free throw line. It reminded me of a conversation I had with my brother regarding Tiger Woods last summer.

He mentioned how focused Woods was when approaching the tee and I said that it was quite possibly the opposite. From what I know of how the brain works--and that's definitely not my area of expertise--one of the dividing lines between talented amateur athletes and the professionals is probably how much the professionals can avoid focusing consciously on their activity.

I know that sounds stupid but hear me out. We tend to think that we control our body's movement. Sure, there's a lot of evidence that events take place that way. We want to raise an arm--and that arm goes up. Wink an eye or tap a toe--same result. That sounds pretty convincing.

A simple version of how these things take place is that our conscious thoughts take place in the cerebral cortex (cerebrum) which is located behind our forehead. The part of the brain that controls motor (muscle) movement is the cerebellum which is located in the rear of the head, the hindbrain. The cerebrum can make demands on the cerebellum which means that you can consciously think about tapping your finger on a desk and the cerebellum causes that finger to tap. Neat.

However while neat, it's also slow. Cerebrum to cerebellum communication is slow. This is something we're all well aware of. Consider the difference in how you move when learning a dance compared to later on when you just listen to music and move without consciously thinking about it. Or a sports analogy would be a 3rd Baseman. He'll often catch a line drive to left but not if he thinks about it. By the time he's even consciously aware it's coming at him, the ball would be over his head in left field. That's because the cerebellum can react without the intervention of the cerebrum. It's common coaching advice to "not think about it--just do it" and that's perfect advice. The cerebellum is perfectly engineered to react quickly to sense data like incoming line drives--our conscious mind is just too slow for that sorta fast reaction. So a 3rd baseman reacts to how the pitch is being delivered and the position of the bat. By the time the ball is hit, the infielder is already moving to field the ball.

The dance example is more apt for my point here though. What we often refer to as muscle memory is actually a learned response that resides in the cerebellum. We can't consciously access this information so the only way to make those smooth dance moves is to let the cerebellum and muscles do their thing and not get in the way. Similarly a professional athlete like Tiger Woods is probably doing exactly that same thing when approaching critical action. Where they look like they're focusing on what they're doing, more likely they're going into a zen-like state where they try to totally block out conscious thought and just let their cerebellum control the action. No doubt that's why many athletes want total silence when they perform complex actions.

Like a kid who yells out "Think fast" and then throws something at you, sounds distract in a way that's not immediately obvious. We process language with our conscious brain. If the words are something that requires us to take action there's a lag time while we make decisions (catch the ball) then inform our cerebellum as to what to tell the muscles. If the cerebellum has already been informed directly by the visual cortex that evasive action is needed confusion results. Two conflicting messages are being sent out and often the result is inaction. A deer in the headlights situation. In any case, hearing words will often slow down reaction time though incoherent noise has little effect.

So if you're an athlete, don't think too much. It'll slow you down. And that cartoon below--it's got it all wrong. Dinosaurs had no cerebrum. All their thinking was of the fast variety--it just wasn't conscious.


Anonymous said…
You are quite right Utenzi. The phenomina you speak of is often referred to as 'muscle memory' as it seems your limbs can react without conscious thought. That is why practice DOES make perfect as you are training your cerebellum to act without conscious instruction :-)

So the Nike slogan is accurate!
kenju said…
Dave, I wrote a long comment cuncurring with you, but Blogger told me I couldn't post it due to a problem. Anyway, Bob-kat said nearly the same thing. Mr. kenju has talked about it, with regards to his playing basketball. That's why he says it is so very important for kids to learn to do things in the right way. For example, some times kids who play sand-lot or street ball are not getting the proper basics in learning how to shoot. Then the bad habits become so ingrained they are almost impossible to un-learn.
srp said…
Here from Michele.
A good example of this is seen when Nyssa practices piano. She can start with a new Canon exercise or I guess you could call them "elaborate scales". The first time through she has to concentrate on the fingering and the notes and it's pretty slow. The second time through she has the notes and concentrates on the fingering. By the third time and onward she sits and her fingers fly up and down the keys and she may be looking at the cat sitting next to her on the bench. Her finger's muscle memory always amazed me... mine was much slower to program.
Anonymous said…
I experience something similiar when writing. I call it being in the zone. You let your actions drive your brain rather than the other way around.

Michele sent me today; have a wonderful weekend!
Gopher said…
Hi Utenzi, Michelle sent me.
Good topic, we have all done things automatically sometimes I swear I drive to work on auto pilot.
Jean-Luc Picard said…
That was a deep. well written post I enjoyed reading.
Anonymous said…
I've heard of this phenomenon as well and it makes sense. It also lends some credence to the notion of "natural born athletes."

Michele didn't send me, but she's bound to sooner or later,

Becky68 said…
Hi Utenzi, thanks for stopping by my blog, always a pleasure, I can understand this too because I play the piano & after a couple of songs to 'warm up' to where it becomes automatic my conciousness will be drifting, usualy to books I've read previously. I'll often re-read a book because of the memory of it which is re-awakened during piano playing.
rampant bicycle said…
Hiya Utenzi!

You know, I've had this phenomenon happen to me. Normally, I can't sink a basketball to save my life...though my odds are substantially improved if I'm not paying attention. Very weird. The brain is fascinating.

Hi from Michele's!
My auto-pilot kicks in mostly when I'm driving. Probably not the best time, but it gets me from a --> z pretty easily!

Here via Michele!
Anonymous said…
Yes, I've heard of this. I have to agree with the frog princess that my auto pilot kicks in while I'm driving! Scary huh?
hi from Micheles!
Michelle said…
That was a great piece of writing :o) Very interesting, i had no idea Dinosaurs had no cerebrum. Have studied certain parts of the brain myself with regards to impulsivity & criminal behaviour :o)
Carmi said…
I call it getting my groove on. And I seem to go into autopilot mode when I'm writing, shooting or cycling. It's a deeply rewarding place to be, because I know I can deliver my best work when I'm groovin'.

I have no physiological understanding of any of this, so your explanation is now going to be memorized by a certain biology-blind journalist.
surcie said…
This post is truly interesting, Utenzi. Sounds right-on to me!

Have a good weekend!
kenju said…
Michele sent me back, Dave, so I could read all the other comments. Seems you were right on!
Teresa said…
LOL. While I agree with the "don't think about" aspect to a great extent, I don't think Tiger Woods applies. That's mostly because golf doesn't compare with baseball and dancing where doing the right thing at the right moment is crucial. Tiger can stand there all day thinking and waiting for his body to get the signal. Golf is more of a case of choosing the right move rather than getting the message to your muscles. But it's an interesting thought....

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