SPECIAL CONTENTS Training the“Athletic Brain Article 10 (Part 2 of 2) | Dec. 1, 2017

Zeroing in on the Secrets of Top Athletes (Part 2)

Athletes with a variety of abilities

The Sports Brain Science Project explores what abilities top athletes excel in by measuring and analyzing their performance. “Hitting” is a single action, but it consists of several phases, including predicting, judging, moving, and adjusting. The SBS Project has found that different abilities are needed for each phase. This means that training tailored to each individual is needed to improve performance.

Do top players excel in unconscious responses, such as deciding not to swing?

—In the case of top athletes like Eri Yamada, they can correctly predict the course of the pitch. What do you believe they excel in, and what do you want to investigate in future experiments?

Kashino: Before the experiment in March, Eri Yamada said, “I’m the type who emphasizes reading the flow of the game. So I think I’d perform poorly during this kind of experiment where no game context is given.” Actually, there were players who were better than Eri Yamada at simply judging the type of pitches. So I think there are other abilities that make Eri Yamada an outstanding batter.

—Such as fast visual information processing ability?

Nasu: I think about performing a reaction time experiment that measured top athletes and general people. In the simplest case, participants are asked to push a button the moment a light appears. One may expect that there would be a difference in reaction time between top athletes and ordinary people. However, a variety of prior studies suggest that there is no such difference in reaction time between these two groups.

On the other hand, it is said that top baseball players excel at “Go/No Go” decision-making. That is, when told to press the button when the pitch is a straight fastball and not to press the button when it is a changeup, they excel at the judging the pitch and controlling their impulse.

Another hypothesis we are considering is that there are differences in the response speed for unconsciously tracking with your hands the moment something moves and the size of the hand movements. We are testing the hypothesis that top players have fast unconscious response to a moving object, and their movements are large.

Kashino: For example, in case of fast irregular actions like stomping on a cockroach, voluntarily trying to move your body in response to what you see is conscious visual-motor information processing that takes time, and as a result, you can’t respond to the cockroach’s movements. Actually, humans have a system of unconsciously tracking an object when something moves. This is a system separate from conscious visual-motor information processing, and allows us to successfully stomp on cockroaches. These different systems may be beneficially applied to sports.

Actually, when we conducted an experiment on reflexive movements on regular and non-regular players on a college baseball team, the regular players had better results. I wish to increase the number of participants and study this experiment in further detail in the future.

There are several phases until the batter hits the ball, and the abilities required for them differ

Nasu: In terms of response, what is more beneficial than the ability to tell whether the pitch is a straight fastball or changeup is the ability afterwards to adjust your timing to hit the ball. This is the ability to unconsciously correct the course and timing of your bat’s swing.

Kashino: In short, there are various phases during the 0.5 seconds it takes for the pitch to reach home plate. These phases can be specifically divided into determining the type of pitch, rotating your hips, adjusting the bat to meet the ball, and so on. The level of each ability differs depending on the player.

—No matter how well you can judge the type of pitches, it is not always true that you can hit.

Kashino: Right. There are players who can’t effectively make corrections afterwards. Because you’re hitting a round ball with a thin cylindrical bat, if the angle of contact changes just a bit, you end up with a flyout or a groundout. So making minute adjustments to hit the ball is extremely difficult. Meanwhile, if you don’t decide on a rough strategy at an early stage, you can’t hit the ball powerfully with the right timing.

This means that a batter needs several important abilities, such as the ability to see the ball, the ability to predict the pitch, the ability to judge whether or not to take a swing, and the ability to track the ball and bat after starting the swing. We can say that the batter’s total performance is formed by these abilities. This is why there are batters who hit a lot of homeruns, but strike out a lot.

Nasu: There is a variety of baseball players, like those who produce many homeruns when they decide to take a swing, and those like Ichiro Suzuki who hit few homeruns but get a lot of hits by making contact with all types of pitches.

Kashino: In the case of Ichiro, I think he prioritizes the strategy of adjusting his swing to make contact with all types of pitches in order to get good results, even though he has the ability to hit homeruns. It is important for each player to determine which abilities to refine in order to make the most of his abilities,

This means that for that young player introduced in the first part, it probably doesn’t make much sense for her to practice swinging the bat. Her swing speed is probably faster than Eri Yamada’s. Instead, they should develop their ability to correct judge the course of a pitch from the pitcher’s movements.

Nasu: This experiment was carried out in March. The young player will gain experience as she faces a new season in the professional league. Her ability to judge the type of pitches will probably improve. I look forward to the next time we measure her performance.

Kashino: Certainly, the better they become, the wider the range of experience they will accumulate. I think that top athletes in baseball develop a baseball model of body movements, and those in boxing develop a boxing model. Having this model allows them to anticipate how their opponents will move and respond accordingly. These are abilities that are completely different from the ability to just press a button quickly when you see a light. Through the SBS Project, we want to deeply explore how accurate models for each sport are developed.

Nasu: Our final goal is to be able to give helpful advice to athletes such as “You have these characteristics as an athlete, so this is how you should train.” What’s more, we want to develop training techniques that make use of virtual reality technology and other technologies to enhance training for this purpose.

Making use of baseball experience and playing catcher in the experiment

—Incidentally, did you play baseball, too?

Nasu: I played regularly from second grade in elementary school to college. I was originally an outfielder, but from high school to college I was a catcher. So for this experiment, I was also in charge of catching. I like all sports, not just baseball. I wanted to work in a sports-related job, and got a teacher’s license in physical education in college.

Kashino: It was extremely beneficial for this project that Dr. Nasu did all the catching for this experiment. No matter if it was a fastball or a breaking ball, he could deal with the pitches.

Nasu: This is because there is no one else who could catch the pitches of former pro pitcher Takehiro Fukuda, who is now a member of this project (laughter). Fukuda’s pitches clocked at about 130 km/h, and I could barely catch them. Actually, by sheer coincidence we both came from the same town—Takatsuki City in Osaka Prefecture. We went to neighboring elementary and junior high schools. We may have even played against each other. I never thought I’d be catching his pitches (laughter).

The quality of Fukuda’s straight fastball is completely different from that of an amateur. But you can especially feel the difference with his breaking balls. He can throw a wide variety—forkballs, two-seam fastballs, braking balls and sliders. They have a sharp drop that I didn’t experience in college baseball. Pro players are on a completely different level.

—You play baseball with Mr. Masumi Kuwata in the amateur baseball team, the Tokyo 18’s (Eighteens), aren’t you?

Nasu: Yes. He was a major ace for the Giants when I began playing baseball in elementary school. Seeing him on TV, I could only be a distant admirer. I couldn’t believe that we would be playing baseball together. I’m really glad I got involved in this project!

—What led you to participate in this project?

Nasu: After I graduated from Okayama University, I entered the PhD program at Osaka University. In my lab was an assistant professor who hailed from the NTT Communication Science Laboratories. From that connection, I met Dr. Kashino about six to seven years ago. However, that time there wasn’t any sports project. Dr. Kashino was introduced simply as a researcher who likes to play catch and does it every day (laughter).

Kashino: We didn’t know what kind of person each other was, but our relationship began with us playing catch. When I launched this project, I remembered Dr. Nasu, and invited him to join.

Nasu: My first impression of Dr. Kashino was that he threw really well for someone his age. I never thought we’d be doing research together. Life is full of wonders (laughter).

Research on “how to hit the target accurately” reveals differences in strategies

—What kind of research did you do in graduate school?

Nasu: Like now, I explored how to improve performance in baseball. I was especially interested in why among players with similar physique and level of experience, there were those who could hit and those who couldn’t. At Okayama University, my research emphasized sports biomechanics. I investigated how players moved their bodies and how quickly they swung their bats.

Afterwards, I moved to Osaka University, and since then I have been interested in how athletes control their movements. Like the experiments here, my research touched on how the brain controls body movements and how pitchers throw accurately.

What made me decide on this theme was competitive dart throwing, where you have to hit the target accurately. The action of throwing darts shares much in common with baseball, of course. If you think about it, human beings have been throwing rocks and spears to hunt animals like mammoths since the Stone Age. Monkeys and other primates also throw, but they can only throw poorly. Throwing skillfully to accurately hit a target is a motor skill unique to human beings.

To put it a bit philosophically, the action of throwing accurately is action to bring about changes to a place that you can’t reach with your hands. It is the first thing that could be achieved thanks to human beings’ advanced brain and body structure.

For my research on dart throwing, I focused on the skilled darts players’ release timing. To throw a dart or a ball accurately, the player must try to precisely time its release. Actually, the results of my research revealed that timing was controlled in 1/1000, 1/2000 of a second. I learned that there were experts with highly variable timing but who stilled hit the target accurately. If the timing or speed of your throw is off, the trajectory traced by the dart should also change. But those players could skillfully make adjustments when throwing (Figure 5).

Figure 5. Two different motor strategies for dart throwing

Athletes move their bodies and adjust to environmental changes

Kashino: You can’t say that athletes with good control necessarily have little variation in their throwing form. For example, when we measured Masumi Kuwata’s pitching form, we found unexpected variation. To put it another, this is probably why Masumi Kuwata is an outstanding pitcher.

What I mean is that the conditions on the baseball mound changes with each pitch, and the environment changes in a variety of ways. If the pitcher performs the exact same way under these circumstances, the results will be dictated by the environment. Masumi Kuwata, on the other hand, keeps the deviation of the ball at the target to a minimum by skillfully adjusting to respond to changes to the mound and to his own body.

I previously asked Masumi Kuwata if he controls the timing, or the position, of ball release to control the ball. He said, “Neither. I just put the ball on a rail.” In short, if he can place the ball on a rail, it will reach its destination, no matter when and where he releases it. I think he truly has an accurate model of his body that takes into account the tradeoffs between time and space.

Nasu: The experienced dart players who showed the large variations in release timing said the same thing. It is simply a matter of placing the dart on the trajectory of the throw. Learning motor control so you can maintain high performance even if your timing is variable is extremely difficult. That's something only top athletes such as Masumi Kuwata can achieve.

Going forward, I want to further zero in on the secrets of top athletes through this project. To reach this goal, we’ll need more cooperation from top athletes to measure and analyze their body movements. I will contribute to this project by carrying out smooth measurements of athletes, including serving as a catcher, and present a variety of results that help improve their performance.

(Text revised: April 17, 2018)

(Japanese text written by Madoka Tainaka)

Daiki Nasu, Ph.D.
Sports Brain Science Project, NTT Communication Science Laboratories

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