Soccer Decision Making 0-7 Seconds Before Conscious Recognition

Imagine you are at an ice cream shop, trying to decide what flavor you should order. You stand there contemplating, and after 6 or 7 seconds you blurt out, “I will take the chocolate chip please”.  You think it took six seconds to come to that decision, but in reality, unconsciously your brain decided many seconds before you were even aware. It might sound strange, but the latest research in neuroscience makes a convincing case for why this is true. The first neuroscience example is from an experiment done by scientists at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences.  The Scientists hooked patients up to an fMRI, as they asked them to press a button with either left or right hand, the only condition was that the participant had track when they made the actual decision to press the button, as the Scientists monitored the micro patterns of activity in the fronto-polar cortex.  Remarkably, the Scientists were able to predict the hand that the participant would use to press the button, up to 7 seconds before the participant was even aware what hand they would use to press the button. This experiment alone challenges most conventional wisdom about the decision-making process. Another experiment came to a similar conclusion, but it involved participants performing a mental task, instead of a physical task.  Participants were instructed to either add or subtract a set of numbers, as data was collected using a fMRI. The results from this experiment re-enforced the previous experiment, showing that the decisions the participants made, whether to add or subtract, were detected on the fMRI up to 4 seconds prior to the participants even being consciously aware of the decision they made. This leads to the question, can this be translated to soccer and player development?


I am a coach that is obsessed with understanding player development from an information processing or cognitive standpoint, so experiments like these spark my interest, causing me to further research the process of decision-making and how it all relates to the game of soccer. Ultimately, it is my goal to help every coach make the connection between science and player development, in a meaningful simple way, but before I connect the dots from the previous research to actual realistic training methods, let’s look at a little more data on the topic that will further help fill in the gaps.


The first important concept that ties into how sporting actions are carried out and decisions are made, is called “Implicit Memory”. Implicit memory is something that your brain holds knowledge of, but cannot explicitly access. An example of this would be a golf swing, if you were to over-think your swing, putting the focus on internal performance cues, it would most likely mess the swing up. This is because the body is designed to carry out motor acts naturally, without the conscious mind interfering. Your subconscious mind holds all the directions your body needs to perform sports movements or actions. This was proven by Wulf, McNevin & Shea (2001), in their research pertaining to external and internal cues and body movements; they determined that internal focus or cueing “constrains the motor system by interfering with automatic motor control processes that would ‘normally’ regulate the movement.” Instead, if a person’s focus is shifted to the end result of the movement goal, the “motor system [can] naturally self-organize, unconstrained by the interference caused by conscious control attempts.”  An example of shifting to an end result of a movement goal would be, shooting at a specific area of the goal, instead of focusing on the technical cues of the shot, like keeping your ankle locked or making sure your plant foot was pointed at the target. By using the end result as the barometer of success, it lets the body perform in a natural state, free from constraints of the mind, success is measured by if the ball went into the goal in desired target area. The idea of implicit memory goes as far back as the 1600s, when a researcher named René Descartes deducted that all of our experiences with the world are stored in memory, but not all of these memories are accessible by the conscious mind. This idea was again re-visited in the 1800s by the famous Psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus. Ebbinghaus believed that many when it was determined that the experiences we live through are stored but not consciously remembered, however the experiences stay with us in our subconscious mind, and these experiences can be retrieved. A good example of this, is a study that was conducted with people who had anterograde amnesia, these are people that have no ability to consciously recall new experiences in their lives. The study involved teaching the group to play a video game called Tetris, when asked the next day about the game, they had no recollection of the experience, they couldn’t even identify seeing the game before. But when the participants were asked to play the video game, they showed vast improvement, just as much as non-amnesiacs. The study proved that even people with anterograde amnesia showed implicit memory with newly learned skills, as they improved at the video game, even though the knowledge gained was not accessible to their conscious mind.


There are many examples of implicit memory and the power of the subconscious mind. One example is the chicken sexers (identifying the sex of infant chickens) of Japan. The mystery of the chicken sexers came about because nobody could explain how the job was accomplished. The deciphering of infant chickens was based on subtle visual cues, but even the best professional sexers could not explain what the cues were. They would just look at the chick’s and instinctively know to throw the males in one bin and the females in another bin, but the difference between the male and female chic’s couldn’t be explained by the sexters. What the master sexters found out was that the only successful way to teach the skill, was by simply saying yes or no when the chick was thrown into the bin by the apprentice. After weeks of yes and no feedback from the master sexter, the apprentice was able to learn the skill, as their brain was trained on an unconscious level. The same held true during WWII when expert British plane spotters tried to train others how to detect the enemy planes flying overhead.  The expert plane spotters could not explain how they did it, rather they just had to tell the apprentices yes or no, as the planes came in, letting the apprentice’s subconscious minds learn the skill. Yet another great example of implicit memory and the subconscious mind, comes from an article the NY Times had written about experienced United States Soldiers who were deployed in Iraq, having served multiple tours of duty. These battled tested soldiers were able to look down a street in Iraq and predict with incredible accuracy whether or not there was an IED (improvised explosive device) present.  When asked how they were able to know if there was an explosive on the street, they were unable to answer how they knew. They literally had no idea how they were able to do it, they just felt it.  They said things like, “it just felt right” or “it just felt wrong”.  However, only the experienced soldiers had the ability to predict with accuracy, if there was an IED explosive threat on the street.  Inexperienced soldiers were not able to predict with any type of accuracy if a street contained an IED. How can we explain this?  It goes back to the processing power of the subconscious mind and the conscious mind, the subconscious mind can process a minimum of 10 million data points in any type of situation, compared to your conscious mind that can only process around 75 data points!  Using those number’s, we can deduct that 99.99 % of the observations you make are subconscious. The experienced experts subconscious mind has almost superhuman abilities in their area of expertise, their decisions and actions may be already decided before they are consciously aware of them.  Just think about some of Lionel Messi’s incredible feats over the years, how quickly does he process data or better yet how quickly does his subconscious mind process data?


The last example of the incredible power of the subconscious mind is demonstrated in a study containing novice and expert chess players.  The novice and expert chess players were shown a chess game that was already in progress, after a couple of seconds a curtain was put over the board and they were asked to set up a new board replicating exactly the game they saw.  The novice chess players were able to recreate and set-up some pieces but not even close to the entire game.  However, the expert chess players were able to recreate the entire game with pinpoint accuracy.  The expert players were even able to understand the strategies that both players were attempting to execute, in the game they recreated.  When asked how they re-created the game the experts were not able to give an answer, but they instinctively just knew how to do it. These examples demonstrate how expert’s subconscious minds are superiorly developed in their fields of expertise.  Experts are able to organize & chunk essential information together quickly, overcoming the limited capacity constraints of the conscious brain.  They are also able to instantly discard all non-essential information while quickly and skillfully recognizing patterns and small details.  The expert’s vast levels of experience in their respected areas allows this to happen; their subconscious minds are so well trained and experienced it even frees up room for their conscious mind to work more efficiently.  The novice performer will always be at a large disadvantage because the novice’s subconscious mind is not developed like the experts.


Based on these examples, it is very clear that the subconscious mind and implicit memory play important parts in our everyday life. So let us now look at the subconscious mind using a sports specific example. The fastest baseball pitch on record is Nolan Ryan’s 100.9 miles per hour fastball.  The pitcher in professional baseball is located 60 feet, 6 inches away from the batter, this gives the batter 4/10 of a second to swing at Ryan’s fastball. That is barely enough time for light signals from the batter’s eye to work through to the retina, activating a response from cells along the visual system in the head to the motor areas, which contract the muscles to swing the bat. This process of events happens in less the 4/10 of second, or nobody could ever hit Ryan’s fastball. However, conscious awareness takes around 5/10 of a second, this means that Ryan’s fastball travels too fast for batters to be consciously aware of, demonstrating that complex sports movements or actions can be performed unconsciously.  As we look at the information, it makes a compelling case, that the subconscious mind plays a very large role in the process of executing sporting actions, movements and making decisions.

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