The Frontal Cortex

The Anatomy of Basketball Expertise

There’s a very cool study in the latest Nature Neuroscience that looks at how professional basketball players make predictions about whether or not a shot will go in. Obviously, this is a key skill, as being able to anticipate the position of a basketball gives players additional time to jostle for a rebound.

The experiment went like this: 10 basketball players, 10 coaches and 10 sportswriters, plus a group of complete basketball novices watched a video clip of a player attempting a free throw. (You can watch the videos here.) Not surprisingly, the players were significantly better at predicting whether or not the shot would go in. While they got it right more than two-thirds of the time, the non-playing experts (i.e., the coaches and writers) only got it right 44 percent of the time.

What allowed the professionals to make such accurate predictions? It seems that they were internally imitating the movement of the player on the television screen, and not simply making judgments based on the arc of the ball. (Unlike the coaches and writers, the players were able to make accurate predictions as soon as the ball left the hand, suggesting that they were “reading the body kinematics” of the person taking the shot.)

Furthermore, the experts also demonstrated increased activation in their motor areas, especially during missed shots. The scientists speculate that mirror neurons are involved, allowing professionals to to engage in a “covert simulation of the action”. In other words, when professional basketball players watch another player take a shot, mirror neurons in their pre-motor areas might light up as if they were taking the same shot. This automatic empathy allows them to predict where the ball will end up before the ball is even in the air.

The same researchers have also done some cool studies of expert tennis players.


  1. #1 Anibal
    August 15, 2008

    Im good amateur basketball player (seriously!)and i would like to say that for issues of social cognition, collective agency or even firm couching having as a counsultant a former professional player is a sure bet.

    In relation to the study, ive left a similar comment in the blog “neurophilosophy”, and to me
    the moral in this study is the experience-dependent tunning of mirror neurons, so, expertise matters, or like Eric Kandel says in his latest book: “Practice makes prefection”.

    Therefore, never listen radio sports because they are only “visual” experts not “practicing” experts, and they might produce a “narrative delay” in their commentaries due to poor running of covert simulations.

  2. #2 jb
    August 18, 2008

    More mirror neurons at work, presumably, in concert with dopamine :
    “Dolphins have a strong tendency to mimic one another, which facilitates training. In captivity baby dolphins often learn the adults’ tricks long before they themselves are old enough for fish rewards, and many oceanariums have had the experieince of ‘understudies’ = animals on the sidelines that watch performing animals and prove to have learned the behaviors without ever being reinforced for them or even doing them. For wild dolphins, apparently, being able to imitate other dolphins must be important for survival.
    “Of course a major part of the shaping of behavior of our children takes place through mimicry. What they see us doing, they do for better or for worse. In my post office recently , three little children were making such a ruckus, it was hard to hear anything else. Their mother, waiting in line, yelled at them several times, before she succeeded in frightening them into silence. “How do you get kids to be quiet? ” she asked the post mistress. “Try speaking softly yourself” the post mistress said, quite correctly. Columnist Judith Martin (“Miss Manners”) suggests, when teaching good manners to children, that during the training period -‘from birth to marriage’- everybody else in the house will have to eat tidily, speak civilly, and at least feign interest in the doings and conversation of others.”
    From Karen Pryor’s “Don’t Shoot the Dog” whose revised edition comes with the recommendation of BF Skinner.

  3. #3 Issues in Sports
    August 25, 2010

    The power to ‘chose’ is probably the greatest power we have in life. Every single thing we do can be traced back to a thought and then a choice which ultimately lead to a destiny.

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