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Interpret & Predict: To Maximize Performance, Minimize Guessing


Interpret & Predict: To Maximize Performance, Minimize Guessing

By Shane Sauer


We’ve all seen it. The high-level basketball player who misses both free throws during the final seconds of a championship.

The free throw is one of the simplest shots he’s made over and over. During practices, he’ll hit 9 out of 10. In a normal game, he’ll make 85%.

However, during the pressure-filled final moments in that championship game, the shots are no longer routine. His hands start to sweat, his heart pumps, and his breathing races. As he goes to shoot, his muscles are a little more tense, so his form is off and he ends up missing both shots.

The player choked. But why? It has to do with the brain and how it functions in a novel situation. Understanding that can improve your movement in everyday life, too.

As a personal trainer, one of my primary jobs is to make sure that my clients move well.  To most people, that means how to do squats and pushups. And while that is important, there is so much more to movement. In reality, movement is the final step in a process loop used by your brain and nervous system:

  1. Receive information from your body and the environment.
  2. Interpret this information and Predict what will happen based on previous experiences.
  3. Create an action (movement, speech, thought, etc.) based on the prediction.

In “Your Brain’s Toolbox” Blog Series (read it here), I explain in detail how your brain receives information using your nervous system (vision system, balance system, proprioceptive system, and interceptive system). More importantly, I supplied some exercises you can try that can help improve those systems’ functioning.

In this blog, I’m going to discuss how to how to make your brain better at using the sensory information those systems take in.

Your brain has one primary function: keeping you alive. To do that, it predicts what is going to happen and then creates a response (hopefully an appropriate one). Keeping that in mind, you should also know that this survival function lives mainly at the subconscious levels of your primitive brain. We’ll call this the “Old Brain”. In addition to the Old Brain, you also have a “New Brain” that is all about doing really cool stuff. When survival is not at stake, the New Brain gets its way. However, when the Old Brain feels at risk, it puts the brakes on the New Brain. 

Let’s explore this from the basketball example above. In theory, this is the same shot the player has taken thousands of times with ease, but in that moment, the pressure of the situation made their Old Brain feel at risk (fear of losing, letting teammates down, etc.) and its unfortunate response is to go into protection mode; tightening muscles and inhibiting the New Brain’s performance.

Here is another example you might be able to relate to on a more personal level. You’re going outside and it’s cold and icy. To protect yourself, you walk with your feet a little wider and you take much smaller steps. This is making you go much slower than you normally would. Even with this margin of safety, you still slip. Your front leg goes forward, out from under you, putting weight on your back leg in an awkward lunge you’ve never felt before. Your New Brain knows the best way to fall is to wrap yourself up and go down softly, but the survival instinct of the Old Brain kicks in. It tries to protect you by stiffening your muscles and throwing out an arm to block the ground. You end up with a hurt wrist and shoulder.

As I said above, the brain is a predictive organ. But when it faces a situation with too many novel stimuli it can’t make a good prediction. In these cases, the Old Brain resorts to default protection mechanisms, even if they aren’t appropriate for the situation.  Sometimes, it works out OK. Often times, it doesn’t. If you want to minimize the times your Old Brain takes over, here are some suggestions:

  1. Work on brain inputs – Using the ideas in my earlier Toolbox Blogs, make sure that your brain is getting the best information it can receive.
  2. Practice new movements in safe (non-stressful) conditions – Your brain needs a library of prior experiences to make good predictions. This includes simple, joint specific movements (mobility work) as well as complex functional movements (squats, etc). In the ice example above, had you previously been in that awkward backward lunge before, your Old Brain might not have freaked out so much.
  3. Try movements at different speeds – Sometimes sports and life happen fast. Sometimes you have to move really slowly. Give your brain the experience of all these possibilities in practice first, before you get caught off guard in life.
  4. Explore joint movements in activity-specific positions – A joint will move differently depending upon the position of other joints. To show your brain what is possible (and not possible) for a given joint movement, try it with the rest of your body in different positions (like in this video).
  5. Videotape yourself moving - Oftentimes, your perception of what we’re doing is very different from the reality. You always feel your movement but seeing it can help your brain give context to what it is feeling.

If all this sounds complicated, remember—it’s what children do it every day. They try new things and new movements. The beauty of that is it’s a tremendous way to prevent injury in sport or as you age.

If you already work out, try practicing the simple moves above as a warmup. If exercise is new to you, these simple moves can be the perfect way to start. Want some help? Talk with me or another qualified movement professional. And feel free to check out some of my other videos for ideas.

In the game of life, we want you to hit as many “free throws” as possible!