For most of us growing up, there were two distinct groups of students in our high schools, the Jocks and the Brains. While they pretended not to like each other, there was an unspoken mutual respect. Just as the Jocks wished they could learn concepts and do homework as quickly as the Brains, the Brains dreamed of athletic glory.
This weekend in Boston, they are reunited at the equitably named MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference. In its sixth year, the SSAC has grown from 175 people, mostly students, to this year’s sold out event where over 2,200 attendees will gather at the Hynes Convention Center. Combining new research, data and paradigms for the training, gameplay and business of sports, the event has attracted everyone from Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban to NHL commissioner Gary Bettman to baseball guru Bill James.
“Our panels are more robust and diverse than ever with topics including Negotiations, Fanalytics, eSports, and Fantasy Sports”, Puneet Rikhi Jain, MIT event organizer, told Forbes.
Included in this year’s speaker line-up are Dr. Peter Fadde, Associate Professor, Learning Systems Design & Technology at Southern Illinois University, and Jason Sada, Managing Director of Axon Sports. They are part of a series of talks labeled the Evolution of Sport, focused on delivering “a message, an idea or a revolutionary thought that could someday change the face of sport.”
Dr. Fadde, who is also a member of the Axon Science Board, is on a mission to raise the batting average of any baseball player willing to try new cognitive training techniques for pitch recognition. His research has revealed that players can increase their reaction time in the batter’s box by first decoupling the perceptual decision making process of seeing and processing the type of pitch being thrown from the actual motor skill of swinging the bat at the ball and then training the perception task by itself.
A pitcher will often give away subtle clues as to the type of pitch he’s about to throw by his release point, his arm speed or his body angle. If the batter can learn to focus on these clues, they will have an advantage.
“This recognition and decision process happens in the 150 to 200 milliseconds that covers the release of the pitch through approximately ⅓ of the ball flight,” said Fadde. “This is the time frame that laboratory experiments by sports scientists have isolated as the key difference between expert and less expert batters. The scientists don’t say what the expert hitter is seeing in that time frame, only that it is in that frame that he is picking up information that helps him identify the type of pitch and predict its ultimate location over the plate.”
These cognitive perception skills are combined with pre-pitch strategic decision skills which try to anticipate what the pitcher will throw, based on the game situation. If a batter is logically expecting a fastball, but cannot detect a change-up being thrown, he won’t have enough milliseconds to adjust his swing.
“Strategic decision-making to anticipate pitches is an important aspect of a disciplined approach to batting, but it is perceptual decision-making that represents the raw ability to identify the type of pitch being thrown and predict its location in the strike zone,” comments Fadde.
Training this recognition skill in an efficient way has been the problem for most coaches and players. There are only so many hours of live batting practice available to each player. As researchers of expert development have shown, thousands of hours of deliberate, task-oriented practice are often required to reach top proficiency.
Fadde believes this is where technology can help. If a mobile video training tool can be
developed that players can use anywhere, then they can continue to improve their perception skills while off the field. While some sports science theorists believe this perception-action link cannot be effectively broken, his research has demonstrated significant improvement in hitters’ performance using video occlusion.
As a member of the Axon Science Board, he is actively working with Axon developers to deliver this type of tool on multiple standalone and mobile platforms.
Describing the broader application of cognitive improvement in sports, Jason Sada will answer the question of his session, “The Athletic Brain – What is it and can it be trained?” Great athletes often have a special kind of intelligence; they see, react and understand the game in a way that sets them apart – call it “game sense,” or “having a high sports IQ”.
Until recently, these key cognitive skills were not considered trainable, or even understandable. However, neuroscience research has demonstrated that many of the key cognitive skills of the ‘athletic brain’ can be measured – and trained.
“By combining expert feedback with the ability to log high numbers of ‘mental reps’ in a short period of time, athletes can build expertise in key cognitive areas, such as high speed decision-making, pattern recognition/spatial reasoning, reaction/anticipation, visualization/imagination, focus, and emotional regulation without draining their bodies or exposing themselves to injury,” comments Sada.
Sports, neuroscience, data and 2,200 Jocks and Brains all together in one place for two days. No wonder you can’t get a ticket.