Last year, in a highly anticipated episode of Jon Gruden’s Quarterback Camp, the former NFL coach warned highly touted rookie prospect Cam Newton about one of the major adjustments facing him when he gets to the NFL.
“You know, some of this verbiage in the NFL, I don’t know how it was at Auburn, but it’s — it’s long. You’ve got the shifts, the plays, the protections, the snap count, the alert, the check-with-me’s,” Gruden said. “I mean, flip right, double-X, Jet, 36 counter, naked waggle, X-7, X-quarter.”
He went on to ask the Auburn quarterback if he’d ever heard a play call like that in college, to which Newton responded, “Our method is ‘simplistic equals fast.’ It’s so simple as far as, you look to the sideline, you see 36 on the board. And that’s a play. And we’re off.”
Gruden did not seem impressed, “Let me make this point, though,” the Super Bowl winning coach continued. “The number one challenge you’re gonna have right away is the verbiage. And just getting comfortable with what we’re calling formations, what we’re calling routes. The alerts. The language. Speaking the language. You’re gonna move to France, and you’re gonna have to speak French, pretty quick.”
What’s difficult about this learning process is that it’s not just learning what the terms mean but then translating those terms into a complicated series of motor skills by each player. The “36 counter” portion of Gruden’s gruesome play call takes years of practice by itself, let alone the rest of the play modifiers.
In the cognitive science world, breaking down a complicated motor task into manageable pieces is known as “chunking.” Think of your favorite band in concert. They seem to fly through 15-20 songs without mistakes or stops to look at sheet music. However, what you don’t see is the hours of practice breaking down new songs into segments, fixing parts that don’t work, memorizing each verse and each chord until the entire song is fixed in their memory.
“You can think about a chunk as a rhythm,” said Nicholas Wymbs, a postdoctoral researcher at UC Santa Barbara’s Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences. “On one level, the brain is going to try to divide up, or parse, long sequences of movement,” he said. “This parsing process functions to group or cluster movements in the most efficient way possible.”
Wymbs is the lead author of a new study recently published in the journal Neuron.
While at first the brain needs to simplify the task sequence by breaking into parts, eventually a different cognitive process searches for the most efficient way to process the request by stringing the sub-tasks together.
“The motor system in the brain wants to output movement in the most computationally, low-cost way as possible,” Wymbs said. “With this integrative process, it’s going to try to bind as many individual motor movements into a fluid, uniform movement as it possibly can.”
In their experiment, they asked volunteers to lie in an MRI scanner while performing a sequence of motor tasks. On a screen above them, each person would see an image of a long sequence that they had to type out on a keypad in front of them, much like playing notes on a piano. After many trials of the sequence, they would begin to learn and adapt, which improved their performance.
“After practicing a sequence for 200 trials, they would get pretty good at it,” Wymbs said. “After awhile, the note patterns become familiar. At the start of the training, it would take someone about four and a half seconds to complete each sequence of 12 button presses. By the end of the experiment, the average participant could produce the same sequence in under three seconds.”
With the MRI data showing the active parts of the brain during this learning process, the researchers were able to observe this dual process of parsing and concatenation. During parsing or chunking, the cortical areas of the left hemisphere seemed to be doing the most work, while the putamen, an area of the brain linked to movement was responsible for putting the pieces back together after sufficient practice.
“These regions have been linked to the manipulation of motor information, which is something that we probably do more of when we just begin to learn the sequences as chunks,” Wymbs said. “Initially, when you’re doing one of these 12-element sequences, you want to pause. That would evoke more of the parsing mechanism. But then, over time, as you learn a sequence so that it becomes more automatic, and the concatenation process takes over and it wants to put all of these individual elements into a single fluid behavior.”
So, what Gruden was trying to tell Newton was that learning an NFL playbook and all of the movements that underlie the terminology was simply a chunking drill. After Newton’s very successful rookie season, it seems he may have taken the coach’s advice.