On his way to becoming an Olympic gold medalist, a 10-time NBA All-Star and the NBA’s all-time leader in 3-point baskets made, Ray Allen picked up a certain shooting practice routine. Not when he was a rookie, or at the University of Connecticut or in high school, but when he was eight years old. He had to make five right-handed layups then five left-handed layups before he could leave the gym. If he ran out of time or was forced off the court by others, “I cried,” he told the Boston Globe. “It messed up my day.”
Over the years, given his success, he might be forgiven if he gave the routine a day off, relying on thousands of previous shots to keep the motor skill alive in his brain and his muscles. But researchers at the University of Colorado may have now discovered why Allen’s insistence to practice beyond perfection continues to yield a return on his investment of time.
Earlier this year, before Allen departed for Miami, Brian Babineau, team photographer for Boston’s Celtics and Bruins, set out to capture Allen’s obsession with his pre-game ritual in a more meaningful way then folklore or photos. He filmed an entire shootaround trying to capture Allen’s extreme focus on his craft.
“I wanted to show the seriousness of his pre game shooting ritual, his amazing focus and I wanted to imagine what it was like to be in his mind while he was doing it,” Babineau told ESPN. “Once he starts his shooting sets, you can see he’s in the zone, where everything is black and white. Once he finishes a set, there is a short moment of reality until he starts his next set with the same focus and determination. This goes on for his entire routine, at all the same shooting spots on the court, for every game … and he’s been doing this for years.”
While no one has kept track, it would be a safe bet that Allen has surpassed the infamous 10,000 hours of structured practice to reach world class status. Indeed, he has become the best at what he does and he’s not buying the notion that he was born with “God-given” skills to play basketball. He described that idea as “an insult.” “God could care less whether I can shoot a jump shot.”
So, what’s the point of this endless devotion to practice? Are there additional benefits that we can’t see on the surface? A group of neuromechanic researchers at Integrative Physiology lab at the University of Colorado-Boulder recently found that we can make subtle improvements in efficiency in our motor skill actions even after we’ve mastered the muscular movements of the task.
They asked a group of volunteers to learn to manipulate a mechanical arm so that it would move a cursor on a screen to a target area. Learning this novel task involved vision, arm movements and repeated feedback to succeed. After 200 trials to learn the basics, a force field was added to push back on the mechanical arm enough to force a quick adjustment and update to the skill that had just been figured out. Even after the volunteers had learned to move the cursor, they kept repeating the skill over 500 times.
During this entire learning process, the test subjects’ muscular activity was measured through electrodes on six arm muscles while their breathing was tracked through a mouthpiece. Surprisingly, during the experiment, the metabolic rates of the volunteers continued to decline even after their muscular activity had leveled off. In other words, the brain-body cost to performing the task became more efficient over time, even after the muscles showed that the task had been mastered.
“We suspect that the decrease in metabolic cost may involve more efficient brain activity,” Alaa Ahmed, assistant professor at CU, said. “The brain could be modulating subtle features of arm muscle activity, recruiting other muscles or reducing its own activity to make the movements more efficiently.”
Their research appears in the Journal of Neuroscience.
Shooting three point shots throughout a heated, loud, draining NBA game is certainly a tough test of a body’s brain-body efficiency. If Ray Allen can save just a fraction of metabolic energy through the fine tuning of his skill set, it may be just the edge he needs.
“The message from this study is that in order to perform with less effort, keep on practicing, even after it seems as if the task has been learned,” said Ahmed. “We have shown there is an advantage to continued practice beyond any visible changes in performance.”
Practice works. Just ask Ray Allen.