The arrival of March Madness has got me thinking about the brain. Ok, yes, I think about the brain a lot. But having coached college sports for 10 years (yes, we’ve already covered the fact that Ultimate Frisbee is a sport in my last post) I’ve come to appreciate how certain brain circuits are essential to being a great athlete. There are obvious ways of course, like the motor cortex and cerebellum, which control athletic movements. There’s the basal ganglia, which controls practiced skills, and the parietal cortex, which deals with spatial awareness and processing. But there are less obvious emotional circuits that contribute to a great athletic performance. These involve the prefrontal cortex, limbic system and anterior cingulate cortex, and they might just help crown the next National Champion.
There’s an old saying, “Offense wins games, but defense wins championships.” And I would agree, but not from a strategic perspective. For me it all comes down to reducing the stress response. It is not great defense itself that leads to greatness, but rather a focus on defense that does it.
In pursuit of any great accomplishment, like winning a championship, you’ll always encounter some hardship along the way. The guy guarding you is a couple inches taller and couple steps faster. Your shot goes cold at the start of the second half. The whole arena is rooting for the other team, and the refs are calling everything against you. An incredible percentage of the whole endeavor is completely out of your control. Unfortunately, feeling out of control is particularly difficult for the mammalian brain.
There’s a famous experiment with dogs that demonstrates the importance of control in promoting mental health (Seligman 1967). In the experiment two dogs are both attached to electric collars, which are synched together, so they both experience the same shocks. The shocks are administered somewhat randomly. When a shock comes on, dog A can press a lever and make it stop. As soon as he presses the lever the shock stops for both dogs. The experience of dog A is that something bad happens (i.e. he gets shocked), and he can do something about it. By contrast dog B gets shocked at the same time, and for the same duration as dog A, but he is not in control of any part of it. His experience is that something bad happens and he is powerless to do anything about it. What’s interesting is that after the experiment dog A is totally fine, but dog B develops symptoms of depression.
For people, perceived control may even be more important than actual control. After all what’s the use of being in control of a situation if you don’t even realize it? The amount that you feel in control of a situation lowers your stress level. For example, one fMRI study of pain showed that having control over a painful stimulus reduced the amount of reactivity in brain pain circuits (Wiech 2006). Similar to the dog experiment, subjects were hooked up with electrodes on their hands and were shocked randomly, but they could stop the shock as soon as they pressed a button. In another condition they were told the shocks would be ended by a computer. That was indeed the case, but the researchers had the computer send the exact same shocks that the subject had experienced in the previous round. So the same person experienced the same amount and duration of shocks, but in one condition they were they were in control, and in the other they were actually in indirect control, but they believed they were not in control at all.
In the out-of-control condition the subjects expressed that they felt much greater pain and anxiety. Their brain scans also showed that they had higher activity in the Orbitofrontal Cortex (OFC), which is an emotional part of the prefrontal cortex just behind your eye socket. The OFC is often associated with gambling, and is connected closely with the emotional limbic system. In contrast, when subjects felt in control they had greater activity in the Dorsolateral Prefrontal Cortex (DLPFC), which is closer to the top of the brain on the side. The DLPFC is a more rational part of the prefrontal cortex concerned with planning. Subjects feeling in control also showed more activity in the Anterior Cingulate Cortex, which directs focus and attention. Lastly, they even showed some increase in activity in the Supplementary Motor Area, which tells the motor cortex what movements to make.
On the court, when all your shots are going in, and all the calls going your way, you feel in control of everything. And sure if everything goes great you’ve got nothing to worry about. But what do you do when everything isn’t going great? In these situations it is very easy to feel out of control. There’s also a huge tendency for your anterior cingulate cortex to pay attention to all the things that are making you feel out of control, which makes you feel even more out of control.
In basketball, like most sports, when things aren’t going great you’re usually on defense. This can be stressful. And when the brain is stressed only the most practiced skills get carried out well by the basal ganglia. So teams that practice more defense are more likely to execute well in these situations. But perhaps more importantly valuing defense as a team, conceptualizing defense as an intentional act and not just reactionary, gives players a greater sense of control. Like dog A, when something bad happens (i.e. a missed shot) they can do something about it (i.e. play defense). When it gets beaten into their heads, when they enjoy defense, when they strive to be great defenders because the culture of the team rewards it, then they can wrench control from a seemingly out-of-control situation. Instead of having to play defense they get to play defense. This may seem like a silly distinction, but it can make all the difference in feeling in control versus out-of-control.
Now if you were reading this article for specific bracket suggestions you’re out of luck. But keep an eye on teams that show a zeal for defense, the ones that don’t get overwhelmed by the Madness of March. As Rudyard Kipling put it, “If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs … [blah blah some other stuff] you’ll be a man my son.” And what’s more you’ll be a champion.
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