How we learn from competition

By Dan Peterson

We learn from our competition and it makes us better, we all know this. So much of what makes an athlete a genius on the field is in the little mind-reading abilities that they have. It’s the cornerback who seems to just sense the perfect moment to break on the ball for a pick, or the hitter who can pick up a changeup right out of the pitchers hand and isn’t fooled for a second. These split-second decisions are built on thousands of reps and years of learning from what worked and what didn’t in the past. What we don’t quite have nailed down yet is how exactly this process works.

A recently published study out of Bristol University provides a glimpse into how we learn by competing. Study subjects played a simple game against a computer opponent while their brains were scanned to detect activated areas. The study found that the reward and learning centers of the players’ brains lit up when they experienced success. This all makes sense, when something works we learn to do it again. But the researchers also found that players didn’t seem to respond much to their opponents’ successes. It was their opponents’ failures that really lit up those brain areas associated with learning and rewards. What’s more, the pattern of the brain scans indicated that the players’ brains were practicing a kind of mental imitation of the failures.

This region of the mirror neuron system in the player's motor cortex increased its activity when the player made moves and also when they observed their computer opponent making the same "virtual" moves -- even though they knew it was a computer.

So when you execute a perfect pick-and-roll you are naturally primed to learn and remember. But we also pay attention to, and mentally imitate, our opponents mistakes, presumably as a way to learn what not to do. And while this helps explain how we learn and get better, it may also give us a clue into ways that we might improve learning. It may be that paying attention only to our opponents’ failures is a kind of defense mechanism, we don’t dwell on the times that our opponents get the better of us. But, we also don’t learn from them. So the next time somebody blows by you with a great move, try to learn as much from it as when you were able to shut your man down.


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One Response to How we learn from competition

  1. RJT says:

    This could be a factor in explaining how level of competition affects learning efficiency. Learning seems to happen fastest when competing against others who are better, but not too much better. Maybe this is not just because of the difficulties that they present to us- perhaps we need to be competing against those who are struggling through problems just a little bit ahead of us. Those who are too far down the path are making mistakes which are not yet helpful.

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