Speed of Thought in Sports

Originally published by Los Angeles Sports & Fitness, November/December 2013.

“Speed kills” is a mantra popularized by an anti-drug campaign in the 1980s and by former Oakland Raiders head coach and owner Al Davis. The mantra, in part, has led the NFL to obsess over 40-yard dash times by NFL draft prospects even though few plays require players to run 40 yards in a straight line. In team sports, speed is a valued quality, but our understanding of speed in team games often is misunderstood. 

Former Dutch international footballer Johan Cruyff said, “Don’t run so much. You have to be in the right place at the right moment, not too early, not too late,” and Wayne Gretzky, the world’s greatest hockey player, added, “I skate to where the puck is going, not to where it has been.” Cruyff and Gretzky illuminate the difference between track speed and game speed: perceptual skills, or in more colloquial terms, game intelligence.

The perceptual abilities thought to differentiate expert and non-expert players include pattern recognition and the ability to predict and anticipate an opponent’s behavior (Aglioti et al., 2008). As an example, Farrow et al. (2005) showed that in an agility task where netball players reacted to players on a video screen, highly-skilled players had a negative decision-making time: they changed directions before the offensive player initiated a pass, signaling an ability to read cues and anticipate. They completed the task with greater speed than less-skilled players who waited for the passer to initiate the pass before changing directions. To paraphrase Gretzky, the highly-skilled players knew where the puck was going before the lesser-skilled players, and this knowledge allowed them to get there quicker. The increased speed was not a function of a physical quality, but a mental one.

In Streetlights and Shadows: Searching for the Keys to Adaptive Decision-Making, Gary Klein defined tacit knowledge as “being able to do things without being able to explain how.” When Gretzky skated to where a puck was going, he was using his tacit knowledge. He may not have been able to explain what prompted him to skate to a specific spot at a specific moment, but he was able to do it.

Klein referred to intuition as “ways we use our experience without consciously thinking things out. Intuition includes tacit knowledge that we can’t describe. It includes the ability to recognize patterns stored in our memory.” In an ESPN article titled, “Ozil’s Secret Weapon,” Michael Cox wrote, “Falcao’s amazing knack of always moving in the exact opposite direction to everyone else in the penalty box, inevitably reaching rebounds quicker than others.” Falcao, a Colombian striker who plays for A.S. Monaco, uses his intuition. He is looking at the same cues and patterns as everyone else, but he sees something that causes him to react differently. He reaches the rebound before anyone else because of this movement, this sense of where to be, this intuition or game intelligence, not because of his track speed.

Since speed is essential to performance in sports, and game speed is largely a mental skill, how can players develop these important perceptual skills? Klein suggested that “in complex and ambiguous situations (like deciding where to move in relations to opponents, teammates, the ball, and the goal), there is no substitute for experience.” However, not all experience is created equal. Klein wrote that procedures “can lull us into mindlessness and complacency, and an erosion of expertise.” Klein was writing about procedures, similar to the method popularized by Atul Gawande’s The Checklist Manifesto. Whereas these checklists or procedures have value in situations that require simple decision-making (Did the doctor sterilize the needle?), Klein argued that they are insufficient in complex situations, and the adherence to procedures may render one incapable of making good decisions in ambiguous situations. Klein was not writing about sports or practice, but mindlessness and complacency also appears in K. Anders Ericsson’s differentiations of types of practice. Ericsson argues that it is deliberate practice which separates experts from their peers, and deliberate practice is characterized by a specific goal or objective, continuous feedback, requiring concentration, repetitiveness, and not for the sake of fun.

Deliberate practice, then, is one method to acquire experience and develop intuition or game intelligence. When quarterbacks pore over game film, they are engaging in deliberate practice. They are attempting to learn the tendencies (patterns and cues) of their opponents so that they can anticipate and read the defense more quickly, so they can make quicker and more accurate decisions. Because of his devotion to this deliberate practice throughout his career, a player like Peyton Manning can be trusted to call plays at the line of scrimmage as he reads the defense rather than depending on a coach to signal a play from the sideline or press box. He relies on his experience, deliberate practice, intuition, and game intelligence to make the pre- and post-snap reads that enable him to set records.

This type of deliberate practice is not the best way to engage children, as deliberate practice is not done of the sake of fun, whereas playing sports should be fun for children. Discovery learning is another approach that can enhance the learning of these important cues and patterns. Discovery learning can be broadly defined as the processes by which players are allowed to search for and discover relatively unique solutions to movement problems without direct instruction from a coach (Davids, 1998).

In The Talent Code, Dan Coyle wrote about the power of futsal for soccer players developing in Brazil, and now soccer clubs across North America and Europe are incorporating futsal, a form of indoor soccer played on a hard floor with a smaller, less bouncy ball. However, the most important aspect of the futsal in Brazil may have been the self-directed learning, not specifically futsal. In the self-directed environment of a futsal game in the favela with no coach, the players search for and develop unique solutions to movement problems. In the more regimented North American versions of coach-led futsal, coaches teach procedures, which can cause an erosion of expertise. Futsal is not the answer to developing more skillful, intelligent soccer players. The answer is self-directed participation or discovery learning. This discovery learning environment creates the conditions whereby young players can develop their intuition.

The problem, as Klein wrote, is that “we put too much emphasis on reducing errors and not enough on building expertise.” In youth basketball, to reduce errors, coaches teach plays and press breaks and other procedures for getting a good shot. Again, these procedures create a mindlessness, so players do not develop the adaptive decision making necessary to make better decisions without the procedures. The procedures help young players appear to be competent and organized, but is that the goal? Encouraging players to find their own solutions may lead to mistakes and fewer wins, but ultimately it will provide the experience necessary for intuition. Through this experience and intuition, players will play faster, as they will see and read cues and anticipate the movements of their opponents, much like the netball players in Farrow et al.’s study or Gretzky and Cruyff. Track speed is valuable and gives an athlete a higher potential for game speed. However, ultimately game speed becomes more and more reliant on game intelligence, which stems from perceptual skills and intuition.

By Brian McCormick, M.S.S., PES
Coach/Clinician, Brian McCormick Basketball
Author, Cross Over: The New Model of Youth Basketball Development
Director of Coaching, Playmakers Basketball Development League

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