How the brain causes execution problems for athletes

This is not an article about sports psychology.

This is an article about an athlete's brain as a machine, which probably needs a tune-up.

Athletic Skills are learned by repetition. Every time the athlete repeats a skill, that skill-program gets reinforced because of that repetition. And, if the athlete repeats that skill with a little added movement or an additional sensory data access, that added motor or sensory access becomes part of that athlete's repertoire for that skill-program. With this reinforcing capability, the athlete's skills grow and mature throughout their career.

The Executive Function is the brain mechanism for executing skill-programs. Every skill-program is executed by this Executive Function.

Let's consider the skill of catching a ball. If the athlete can catch the ball, the skill program is operating correctly and the Executive Function executes that skill-program properly. And, every time the athlete catches the ball, the 'catch the ball' skill-program gets reinforced.

But, what causes the athlete to drop a pass? If the skill-program works for catching the ball, the athlete will have sighted the incoming ball (sensory access) and then moved the legs and feet, and the hands and arms, to be in position to catch the ball. And when the ball arrives, the skill-program would activate those hands to grasp the ball at the moment that the ball arrives.

If you have been watching the NFL post-season, you had plenty of opportunities to see successful ball catching. But in that same post-season series of games, you were also able to observe failed attempts to catch the ball. You would have seen grasping the ball too early or too late or the receiver out-of-position.

How is it possible for the athlete with a properly formed 'catch the ball' skill-program to not catch the ball? What could be happening in the brain that would cause the 'grasp the ball' subroutine to execute at the wrong time or be executed for the wrong location?

It is hard to write about this kind of event without using the word 'execute.' The athlete has a skill-program, which is the culmination of all his/her experience and training for the task of catching the ball. But, something caused the 'execution' of that skill-program to fail. So, let's look at the part of the brain which is in charge of executing skill-programs.

The Executive Function is in charge of that task of executing skill-programs. This means that the Executive Function moves from one step in the skill-program to the next step with the timing needed to successful execute the skill-program.

This brings up an interesting point. What could be the cause of the 'grasping the ball' subroutine being executed too early or too late? If the athlete's 'grasping the ball' subroutine does normally execute properly, and yet sometimes, the execution is too early or too late to to be successful, what could be going on in the brain that the Executive Function sends the pulses too early or too late to be successful?

A Timing Mechanism The Executive Function needs some kind of timing mechanism to step down through a skill-program. This timing mechanism needs to alert the Executive Function to move to the next step of the skill-program. If the timing signal comes too early, the Executive Function moves to the next step too early. And of course, if the timing signal comes too late, the Executive Function moves to the next step in the skill-program too late.

Measuring The Results Of These Timing Signals. I have been measuring the results of these timing signals for the last 15 years. I have more than 10K of these test results, which shows the profile of the test subject's timing mechanism. I measure how many milliseconds the test subject is off for a simple receptive task.


Here are example test snippets showing a variety of different timing precision profiles. These are test examples, where the center line is the point of precision where the test subject is off by 0ms. The first scale above and the scale below that center line represents being off 50ms (before or after). These test snippets are only 24 test points.

You can see that this first test subject is only precise for 3 of those test points. And, that this subject is imprecise by (or beyond) the 50ms line for 9 of these test points.

This next test snippet has a different profile. There are 6 test points where the test subject was precisely on the zero line. There were no test points where the test subject was at or beyond 50ms line, but 9 of the test points are at or beyond 30ms.

This last snippet has 13 test points quite close to the zero line, and has 5 test points between 20ms and 30ms.

So, these 3 test snippets range from poor timing precision, to a little better timing, to almost okay timing.

Let's put these timing errors into perspective. In the Physics of Baseball, by Robert Kemp Adair, PhD, the well researched timing of the baseball flight and swing are described. The following is an overview:

The important detail from this for this article is that for a successful hit, the bat must meet the ball within 7ms of the precise time needed for the hit to be fair (if more than 7ms too early or too late, the hit will be a foul ball).

So, if we explore these three test snippets, we can estimate how these three test subjects might perform in trying to hit the ball. Of course, there is a lot of background skill development that is needed to hit a baseball and we could not project the ball hitting skill sets based on these test these 3 people performed.

But, what we can do is talk about the chances the test subject might have at hitting the ball based on timing alone. So, we can surmise that if the science tells us that successful hitting requires a window of +7ms to -7ms is required for the possibility of hitting the ball, how much of a chance do these three test subjects have at hitting the baseball?

The first test snippet had 4 points that were in the +7ms to -7ms window. That represents about 15% of the time, the person's brain would have good enough timing capability to have a possibility to hit the ball. The rest of the time, the brain's timing capabilities would not support skill execution of a successful swing.

The second test snippet had 6 points that were in the +7ms to -7ms window. That represents about 25% of the time, the person's brain would have good enough timing capability to have a possibility to hit the ball.

The third test snippet had 13 test points in the +7ms to -7ms window. That represents more than 50% of the time, the person's brain would have good enough timing capability to have the possibility to hit the ball.

Of course, as I mentioned before, this does not take into account the baseball hitting skills needed to hit the ball.

And, there is no way to learn baseball hitting skills or techniques (skill-program) to be able to hit the ball more often than the timing capability would allow. Maybe the athlete could compensate by starting the swing early, but this would not improve the chances of hitting the ball, because that window is plus or minus. So, if you try to start the swing early, half the time you would be swinging much too early.

This is how the brain is contributing to execution errors.

At any moment in time, our Executive Function is set to start executing some skill-program we have created and learned to use. If our Executive Function is relying on poor timing signals, the execution of our skills will be sloppy and imprecise.

What can be done to improve execution precision?

The testing examples you have seen here in this article are examples of the testing we do for our clients as we tune-up their Executive Function precision.

We focus on working with professional athletes and offer an exclusive, unique program for improving execution precision by improving the quality of the timing signals used by the person's Executive Function.

Our program supports our professional clients and their coaches in achieving the highest levels of performance in their sport. Contact us to request testing of your timing mechanism profile.

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