Brain mapping: the future of scouting

"You never block a shot with your head” is a basketball truism used to explain why height is less important than length and jumping ability when evaluating incoming NBA talent. The physical qualities we measure in basketball are attributes like wingspan, speed, vertical leap, shuttle run quickness, and strength. But what separates elite athletes at the NBA level aren’t slight differences in physical attributes, but significant variation in mental acuity for the game, and the desire to learn and become better on the court.

Those are the characteristics that generally fall under “intangibles.” For now, anyway. Drs. Brian Miller and Wesley Clapp are in the process of understanding how people learn athletic skills, and analyzing the physical difference at the neural level between a player with an affinity for solving complex problems with coordinated athletic performance -- like the Celtic’s defensive schemes -- and a player unsuited for such tasks.

The two scientists are using functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) to track brain function in humans and better understand how we learn and how athletes perform during competition. By observing what parts of the brain are activated during competition, training and decision making, Clapp and Miller are hoping to discover more about how athletes learn and perform. They’re also looking into neuroplasticity, or the way that the human brain changes based on experience, and, for athletic purposes, training.

TrueHoop at MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference

Humans learn in two ways that seem diametrically opposed: rote memory and new experience.

We can improve at replicable tasks like free-throws or solving the exact same math problem over and over through rote memory. Every time a neuron fires within our brains, it sends an electric signal to another neuron and a neural pathway is created or strengthened. Just like working out a muscle, repeated firing in the same manner will strengthen that pathway. In time, that connection between two neurons will fire more readily, increasing performance. This process is called Long-Term Potentiation.

But elite athletes aren’t just judged by their ability to successfully complete rote tasks, but by their capacity to handle uncertainty. Later in the day, former Portland Trail Blazer GM Kevin Pritchard explained the difficulty of making free throws, a seemingly rote skill, this way “If I give you ten shots to make six, you’ll probably do it. Now I give you the ball and say ‘make six or you’ll die’… it’s a different story.” In these clutch situations, so vividly articulated by Pritchard, even well practiced motions can fail.

But how? What happens inside the brain that causes finely tuned mechanisms to fail with no external physical factors beyond the pressure of the moment? We might come to define choking differently if the neural mapping can reveal who misses because of pressure, and who just misses.

There is an obvious and exciting potential for brain mapping to have a major impact on how we judge and develop talent at the NBA level. In training, coaches could be able to determine the very best training methods to increase functional learning and encourage “transference between skill domains” or the ability to successfully connect different skills in varied or even new circumstances. It seems logical that it would also become one of, if not the most important evaluating tool of the future.

Picture a front office nervous about drafting a guard who wasn’t a pure point guard in college, and trying to determine his potential to play the point at the next level. Will the player develop into a floor leader, or does his brain map suggest that he is unlikely to learn this new role? Will he be Russell Westbrook or Jerryd Bayless? These are the kinds of questions that brain mapping could address more accurately.

Admittedly, much of this presentation went above and beyond my capacity for understanding. And the two speakers weren’t excited to spill specifics of their research or technology because their work was “a bit proprietary.” In other words, these ideas are worth a lot of money and we aren’t about to give them to anyone for free.

It's no wonder that, for the most part, Clapp and Miller keep their progress secret. Today we perceive the workings of an athlete’s mind largely through interpretation of their actions, the true motivations of which are plainly beyond full understanding. And so we ascribe intangible, almost mystical properties to what boils down to physical brain functions. By demystifying the processes of learning, decision-making and even coordination, we will more fully understand an athlete’s body, and by extension his mind, better than ever before.