The Mental Side of Performance Outcomes
By Ken Cherryhomes
While researching visual and motor memory, I came across the work of a pair of neuroscientists who worked with a Major League baseball team, Jason Sherwin and Jordan Muraskin, co-founders of deCervo. They were commissioned to perform neural assessments of several minor league hitters. Their impetus: to be the first company to measure the impact of a decision to swing, and how it relates to performance outcomes. Their testing involved hitters in front of laptop computer screens, viewing pitched ball simulations, while wearing EEG headsets to capture their brain activity.
Through their testing, deCervo produced graphs identifying when the hitter decided to swing, down to the millisecond, something I have been doing for several years, through a very different methodology- and for a different purpose.
The purpose of their study was to determine rapid perceptual decision-making in baseball players, leading them to conclude elite baseball players have a superior ability to identify pitches and produce a rapid response. They are correct in their conclusion, but probably not for the reasons they believe. Being able to respond quickly once a pitch is identified is absolutely a component, but it is only one component and cannot be singled out as the key to being an elite hitter. What separates the elite hitter from the non-elite is their ability to coordinate, within a minute window of time, their physical actions with those of an independent object, also in motion, that they have no control over.
As I read on, the article stated Sherwin and Muraskin did not care how the hitters developed their talent. What? How and why, in my opinion, is crucial in understanding both the usefulness of a discovery and in the development of enhancement protocols, as well as keying in on the particulars that comprise this skill, to aid in the scouting of players.
Identifying and quantifying this component of successful hitting without considering why elite baseball players possess this skill, or its role of importance, had me questioning the point of their testing. The human ability to react is an innate mechanism of survival. The ability to identify an object and initiate a motor response, is also innate, in all healthy beings. Their assumption is that elite hitters possess superior reaction response, which results in and/or is the product of, superior pitch recognition. But there are a great many non-elite hitters who possess superior reaction response that do not have superior pitch identification skills or a superior ability to time down elite level pitching. Quantifying reaction response through the methods of deCervo, enable them, perhaps, to measure change based on focused training, but without determining what role rapid perceptual decision-making plays, how it is acquired and what precludes it, leaves many questions unanswered as to its usefulness in the early identification of elite hitter potential.
Is rapid perceptual decision-making enough to separate the elite hitter from the pedestrian hitter? While rapid perceptual decision-making is a component of successful hitting, it is just that, a component, no more, or no less important than other components that make up an elite baseball hitter. The next step should be identifying the inhibitors that preclude rapid perceptual decision-making.
Rapid perceptual response versus early pitch identification
Rapid perceptual response and early pitch identification are two very different things that should not be confused with, or necessarily attributed to, one another. One is motor response, the other, object recognition. Early pitch detection is the product of experience, resulting in encoded memories. The more experience the hitter has seeing pitches of all speeds and varieties, the more deeply encoded the memory and more readily the memory is available for recall and application. It is also important to note, not all hitters cognitively recognize ball spin. Hall of Fame hitting virtuoso, Tony Gwynn, admitted he never saw spin, judging pitch-type by depth and plane.
The range of human reaction time is somewhat negligible, with the average response reaction being 0.25 seconds, and an elite response reaction being 0.18 seconds. Reaction response can be improved upon, though there are physiological limits. To compensate for neurological response delays, the brain makes predictions of outcomes based on afferent information, as evidenced by a study involving the flash-drag effect (Gerrit Maus, et al), in which the brain predicts the logical outcome of an object, based on motion cues.
Identifying the key components of rapid response
An overlooked contributor to the EEG response results may be related to the athlete’s hardwired brain-type, which is a huge contributor and important to determine before discerning the applicability of rapid response testing and how this applies to all hitters. Investigating brain-types, or personality hardwiring, can provide other clues to both rapid perceptual response and early pitch detection abilities. There are 16 hardwired personality types. Without going into the specific skillsets of each, I’ll focus on the ISTP, or, Introverted – Sensing – Thinking – Perceiving brain-type, the ultimate athlete, also referred to as the “Great White Shark” of brain-types. While all of the 16 brain-types can be found in professional sports, it is the ISTP that is most sought after and correlated as the top performer across the spectrum of elite sport performance.
The Neuro mapping of ISTP brain types show extremely focused use of four regions of their brain. Two of these highly activated regions, F3 and F4, are particularly relevant when evaluating an athlete’s innate abilities. Region F3, located in the left side of the dorsolateral pre-frontal cortex, manages motor planning and fine motor coordination. The high activity an ISTP displays in F3 could explain why they are known to be physically coordinated and excellent at problem-solving. Region F4 is responsible for fine motor coordination and sensory guidance of movement. The high use of this region would explain why ISTPs have good hand-eye coordination and possess the ability to respond quickly to physical changes in their environment. These athletes possess extraordinary motor control over both their gross and fine muscles.
While wired to make snap decisions, I would suggest it is the ISTP’s innate competitiveness and ability to ignore failure while remaining focused on their goals, that is the carry-over observation that can be taught and/or enhanced with non ISTP athletes and should be the focus of future testing.
Someone experienced in brain typing (Jonathan Niednagel) is capable of identifying an ISTP through the observation of physical attributes and motor cues without the use of an EEG.
The ISTP has shown us that being immune to failure and remaining goal oriented, is a component of rapid decision making, but what are other components that can be taught or brought out in non ISTPs? Familiarity or experience, competitiveness, relaxation under duress and confidence are also components of rapid decision making ability.
- Experience. The more exposure one has to a specific activity or event, the more familiar they become with the potentiality of outcomes and permutations that may arise.
- Relaxation. This enables an athlete to be in a state of preparedness without anticipation, which in turn facilitates reacting to unique circumstances without forethought.
- Competitiveness. This requires an individual to make adjustments, take risks, be adaptable, and to ignore consequence.
- Confidence. This is often predicated on success, while success is predicated on confidence. Preparing the athlete’s body and mind through training free of consequential restraints prior to competition is key to developing confidence.
What precludes rapid decision making? Fear. Plain and simple. And what inherently leads to fear? A fixation on consequence, self-image reflection, and skewed priorities such as hitting to avoid failure, rather than hitter for the joy of success, just to name a few, and all of which distract decision making. These psychological diversions also manifest themselves physiologically in muscle tension, which would slow physical response.
There are a number of questions remaining as to the validity of this type of testing and whether or not the results transfer or relate to real-world experiences. Because testing was implemented by means of video, it induced none of the inherent excitement brought on by consequence.
I have tested the reaction response of a great many hitters using live baseballs for this very reason. Rather than testing under conditions of comfort, I attempt to induce similar levels of anxiety existent within an actual hitting event.
Having identified and quantified reaction response time is a step in the right direction. Establishing protocols to improve the inhibitors and then retesting the subjects would be the logical next step. I will reiterate, any reduction in reaction response time will most likely be negligible, and it is doubtful testing this in prospects will glean any meaningful insights beyond the obvious correlations we’ve already identified intuitively.
None of this seriously relates to pitch identification skills, which I have written extensively about and will continue to do so. However, many of the components I have identified in this article do lead to improved pitch recognition skills and enhancing player performance.
Speaking of pitch recognition, there are a number of reasons this skill acquisition cannot be achieved through video practice protocols, which I will address in great detail in an upcoming article.
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