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Understanding Timing and Chemistry in Team Sports

A brief history of our understanding of how the brain processes timing.

Key points

  • The performance of sports teams depends on good chemistry based on the players’ interactions and feelings.
  • Chemistry results from conscious interactions with perceptual, emotional, and behavioral components.
  • Timing is crucial for chemistry because players need to coordinate their movements for passing and plays.
  • Timing is accomplished in the brain by time cells and memory units that track movement of self and others.

Chemistry is a strong, conscious connection between people that is important for romance and psychotherapy. It emerges from the interaction of perceptual, emotional, and behavioral components that establish relationships and govern social dynamics. Chemistry is also important in team sports, where members form bonds that can improve team success as the result of enhanced communication, increased trust, improved morale, strong group identity, effective conflict resolution, and adaptability to changing conditions.

My analysis of the role of consciousness in romantic and therapeutic chemistry could be extended to sports, but here, I want to emphasize another important aspect of chemistry—timing. Timing is important for romance when it contributes to effective conversation and affection: a well-timed kiss can ignite a relationship, but a clumsy attempt can snuff it out. A therapist needs to figure out whether a client is ready for a deeper level of emotional engagement. Without timing, any social relationship can be less than the sum of its parts.

Timing is obviously crucial for team sports, as in the following examples:

  • Football: a handoff from a quarterback to running back requires them to coordinate their movements and transfer the ball cleanly.
  • Basketball: an alley-oop pass requires one player to throw the ball high above the basket and another player to leap high and throw the ball down into the basket.
  • Hockey: a give-and-go play occurs when one player passes the puck and speeds toward the goal, expecting a return pass.
  • Soccer: a corner kick allows a player to kick the ball in the air toward a net with the expectation that another player will head or kick it into the net.
  • Baseball: a double play at second base requires one player to field the ball and throw to another who touches the base and then throws the ball to first.

Similar examples could be given for other team sports, including cricket, volleyball, and rugby.

Sports timing requires coordination, synchronization, rhythm, quick decision-making, fitness, and good strategy. All of these require teammates to work together to time their own and each other’s actions. How does the mind manage time so effectively?

Space and time are crucial to the functioning of all animals, so we should not be surprised that the brain has evolved special ways of representing them. Here is a chronology of the discovery of the relevant neurons.

1971: Place cells. John O’Keefe and Jonathan Dostrovsky report neurons in the hippocampus of rats that fire when the rat is in a particular location.

2005: Grid cells. A team led by Edvard Moser and May-Britt Moser describe cells in the medial entorhinal cortex of rats that fire in a unique spatial pattern as the rats moved around.

2011: Time cells. Howard Eichenbaum and his laboratory report neurons in the rat hippocampus that encode a representation of time by firing at moments during a sequence.

2020: Time cells in humans. Gray Umbach and Texas researchers describe time cells in the hippocampus and entorhinal cortex that support episodic memory.

2023: Time cells in bats for the motions of other bats. David Omer and Israeli researchers find that bats not only have time cells that track their own movements, but also time cells that track the flights of other bats.

I bet that humans will also turn out to have the other time cells found in bats. These neurons would allow athletes to track the motions of other players and coordinate them with their own movements, also measured by time cells. Perhaps both kinds of time cells will also be crucial for the ability of skilled players to anticipate how a game unfolds. Hockey player Wayne Gretzky’s slogan was: “Skate to where the puck is going, not to where it’s been.” Predicting future movements of teammates, opposition players, and the puck requires instantaneous estimations of future movements based on neural representations of time.

Time cells alone are not enough to track the movements of players and their teammates. These neurons must be bound with other information, such as physical location and bodily movements. Temporal, physical, and bodily information can be combined in neural representations that Chris Eliasmith and his colleagues call memory units. These units operate in groups of neurons to enable teammates to coordinate their own actions with those of others. Development of such timing is crucial for team chemistry and for the coordination of people in other relationships, including romance and therapy.

When my sons played hockey, their coaches often repeated the sports cliché: There is no “I” in “team.” My rowdy son, Adam, replied: but there is a “me.” Time cells and other neural representations that athletes have of themselves and each other are part of the explanation of how team performance can go beyond individuals to emerge into something greater.


Omer, D. B., Las, L., & Ulanovsky, N. (2023). Contextual and pure time coding for self and other in the hippocampus. Nature Neuroscience, 26(2), 285-294.

Reis, H. T., Regan, A., & Lyubomirsky, S. (2022). Interpersonal chemistry: What is it, how does it emerge, and how does it operate? Perspectives on Psychological Science, 17(2), 530-558.

Umbach, G., Kantak, P., Jacobs, J., Kahana, M., Pfeiffer, B. E., Sperling, M., & Lega, B. (2020). Time cells in the human hippocampus and entorhinal cortex support episodic memory. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences U S A, 117(45), 28463-2847

Voelker, A., Kajić, I., & Eliasmith, C. (2019). Legendre memory units: Continuous-time representation in recurrent neural networks. Advances in neural information processing systems, 32.

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