Learning A New Sport Skill Is Just Trial And Error For Your Brain

Just about every coach and parent, not to mention most young athletes, have heard the vague but obvious phrase, “practice makes perfect.” Quarterbacks wanting to complete more passes need to throw a lot more balls. Rising basketball players who need to increase their free throw percentage need to shoot hundreds of free throws.  In most cases, repeating a motor skill over and over in slightly different environments and conditions will improve the success rate. If not, we would all still struggle with tying our shoes or riding a bike. But what is it about practice that helps our brains figure out the specific task while also generalizing enough to transfer the skill to different scenarios? Kicking a football through the uprights of a goal post is slightly different than kicking a soccer ball into a goal but we didn’t have to completely relearn the kicking task when switching between the two sports. Researchers at McGill University took another step forward in understanding how the trial and error of practice teaches our brain to perform these complex sports skills.

Did Pete Rose's Competitive Spirit Drive Him To Gamble?

For many young baseball fans, Pete Rose is a name that is better known for being a baseball player banned from the game for gambling rather than the all-time leader in hits, not to mention games played, at-bats and singles. 
In 1989, Major League Baseball banned him from the game due to accusations, which Rose later admitted to, of betting on baseball games including on his own team, the Cincinnati Reds, as a player and a manager. While Rose contends that he never bet on the Reds to lose, which would be a conflict of interest, MLB still suspended him indefinitely.
This month, Rose could be seen for the first time as a national baseball analyst on Fox Sports as well as appearing with other prominent members of the Big Red Machine at this year's All-Star game. 
Rose, known as one of the most competitive players and managers to play the game now has his gambling passion under control but he joins a list of other top athletes who have struggled with the excitement and risk involved with wagering on just about anything.
Michael Jordan, Charles Barkley, John Daly, Wayne Rooney, and Paul Hornung are just some of the well-known names that have lost millions of dollars betting on sports, poker, slots or even golf games. Of course, having millions of dollars to start with allows these athletes to wager these large sums. But, is there a connection between their highly competitive personalities and the thrill of placing large and frequent bets?

Choose Your Words Carefully When Motivating Your Young Athletes

Your kids want you to be proud of them. This need for a parent’s approval can be a powerful or destructive force when it comes to youth sports. When we communicate goals for our budding superstars, the wording we choose can make all the difference.   New research out of Ithaca College shows the effect parents can have on their kids’ game-time anxiety, which can directly impact their performance and overall enjoyment of the game. Miranda Kaye, a professor in the Department of Exercise and Sport Sciences at Ithaca, knew from previous research that a coach exerts the primary influence on a team’s attitude and confidence. But, she noticed that hardly any studies had looked at the pre-game conversations that parents have with their athletes. "I think people intuitively know that what parents do matters, but it's never been looked at," said Kaye.

Just An Hour Per Day Of Play Can Boost Young Brains

Imagine an activity that your kids could do after school every day that would improve their brain’s ability to make better decisions and solve problems.  Online cognitive drills? Special tutors? Actually, researchers at the University of Illinois have found that just an hour of fun, active play not only gets kids in better shape but significantly improves their cognitive functioning.
Plenty of previous studies have shown the link between fitness and better academic performance in the classroom but it wasn’t clear if this was a cause and effect relationship or just that smarter kids stayed in shape.  So, Charles Hillman Ph.D., kinesiology and community health professor at the University of Illinois, designed an ambitious project to test 221 students, aged 9 and 10, before and after a nine-month after school exercise program.

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 Aaron Seitz and Daniel Ozer and recent Ph.D. graduate Jenni Deveau tried a more ambitious perceptual learning-based training program.

The Subliminal Power Of Positive Cheering

Young athletes often hear phrases of encouragement like, “dig a little deeper” or “you have to want it more than they do” or, ideally, “be mentally tough.”  For most kids, these words from a coach, a parent or a teammate go in one ear and out the other.  But, what if there was actually some scientific substance to the words?  Could the smiling, confident face of a coach delivering a pep talk actually have a subliminal effect on performance?  While the conscious brain may dismiss this positive talk, the subconscious mind may actually be putting it to work, according to new research from sports scientists at the University of Kent in England.

Sleep - The Next Best Thing To Practice

As usual, Mom was right.  Her advice to get to bed early is being confirmed by human performance researchers, sleep specialists and sports medicine doctors. Kids, especially young athletes, need more sleep.  
While common sense tells us that a lack of shut-eye will cause children to be grumpy from a lack of energy, new knowledge about the brain details how sleep affects not only their physiological functions but also their ability to learn new skills.
The more well-known sleep state known as REM (Rapid Eye Movement) is the dreammaker that tries to put our day’s activities into the context of our existing memories.  But first, our brain enters a deeper phase known as “slow-wave” sleep where embryonic neural networks solidify the new motor skills and knowledge learned earlier.
In an experiment last year, Masako Tamaki, a postdoctoral neuroscience researcher at Brown University, tried to pinpoint where in the brain these changes happen. "We were trying to figure out which part of the brain is doing what during sleep, independent of what goes on during wakefulness,” Tamaki explained. “We were trying to figure out the specific role of sleep."

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."

"Rodgers was going to make the throw, all right. He was making it a millisecond after Cobb put his foot in the ground. Trufant’s good—quick and fast. As the ball rocketed toward Cobb, Adams knifed through traffic and got to Cobb just as the ball did. But the ball was placed perfectly in the oncoming Cobb’s gut. It got there just before Trufant did. Smash! Trufant barreled into Cobb, who cradled the ball to his chest. If the pass is wide or low or high, even by half a foot, the force of Trufant hitting Cobb would have dislodged the ball—no question. And Trufant played it perfectly. In fact, after he slammed into Cobb, Trufant got up triumphantly, feeling, I made the play! But Rodgers made the play. Gain of four. First down." The variables of speed, strength, environment and defenders constantly change yet, eventually, both QB and receiver need to get on the same wavelength. Often referred to as “motor memories”, athletes rely on thousands of practice repetitions to help them instantly adjust to new conditions on the same tasks - throw and catch a ball.  Now, researchers at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine have a better understanding of how we are able to do this.

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.

Kids Who Move Can Grow Their Brain

If there is one thing that Charles Hillman wants parents and teachers to understand, it is the power of aerobic activity to improve the brains of young children.  From his Neurocognitive Kinesiology Lab at the University of Illinois, Professor Hillman has produced study after study showing not only cognitive improvement in the classroom but also the brain’s physical changes that occur when kids become more fit.  His latest research, in collaboration with postdoctoral researcher Laura Chaddock-Heyman and Arthur Kramer, Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience, reveals more compact white-matter tracts in the brains of a group of 9 and 10 year olds who were in better shape than their peers.