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Inside the Mind of a Quarterback

The science behind the mental decision-making process, and how quarterbacks process the game at NFL speed Jason Sada

Print This August 19, 2012, 07:30 PM EST

The 2012 preseason has started and we’re getting our first look at the top four quarterbacks picked in the 2012 NFL Draft: Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III, Ryan Tannehill and Brandon Weeden. They have their heads buried in playbooks and their brains focused on every rep at live practice. Who will emerge as a top rookie is anyone’s guess, but one crucial measure of their success will be their ability to make high speed decisions.

Daniel Kahneman, an emeritus professor of psychology at Princeton, warns us that we are not as in control of our decisions as we’d like to believe. What may seem like a straightforward, obvious choice on the football field (audible or not, pass vs. run, throw short or deep) may be influenced by hidden biases and heuristics that we don’t consciously perceive.

You might be thinking that’s quite a load of psychobabble, but Kahneman, who created the field of behavioral economics, backs up the theory with plenty of real world experiments in his new book, Thinking, Fast and Slow. In one example from the sports world, he and his longtime collaborator, Amos Tversky, evaluated 2.5 million PGA golf putts and found that golfers perform much better on the green when going for par rather than a birdie. They blamed our inherent loss aversion (not scoring par) as a more powerful motivator than the opportunity for gain (scoring one under par). The putting motor skills of the golfer are the same, but the situation causes the internal motivation to change.

That sub-conscious adjustment to the skill of putting is an example of what Kahneman calls System 1 thinking, which is fast, intuitive, automatic and subject to our years of learned biases and experiences. The other half of our thinking process is known as System 2 described as our slower, logical, reasoned approach to everyday problems. Think of System 1 as the instant reactions the QB has on the field to the play in front of him, while System 2 is the hours of study and preparation of a game plan leading up to the game.

System 1 is essential to human functioning, as it allows the brain to respond instantly and smoothly to a constant stream of inputs and choices. It is especially important in sports performance, where automaticity and rapid response is essential – the brain doesn’t have time to go to System 2 to analyze every potential action and decision. However, athletes can strengthen their “Athletic Brains” by training the underlying information in System 2 so that their in-game reactions will be more accurate.

While you will never eliminate the tendency of the brain to explain random events by coming up with perceived reasons that make it feel like there is pattern or causation, athletes can use System Two thinking to try and keep their biases in check.

In addition to the loss aversion heuristic, quarterbacks are also susceptible to what Kahneman calls the availability bias; our tendency to rely on associations and analogies that come easiest to mind. For a QB looking at the defensive front, he might focus on the first pattern recognition that pops into his head based on his stored memory and training, rather than seeing a more subtle pattern that may call for a different response.

For the experienced player, this automatic response is a competitive advantage because it has been learned by years of deliberate study and practice. System 1 becomes a tool to recognize patterns quickly in what Malcolm Gladwell would describe as a “Blink.”

When facing a rookie quarterback, defensive coordinators try to take advantage of an undertrained System 2 by disguising their blitzes and coverages. QBs need large numbers of practice repetitions to slowly transform their System 2 analysis into quicker System 1 reactions.

These cognitive skills can be developed slowly through live practice reps or more quickly with technology. Football simulation training, what we call Athletic Brain Trainers, present these situation-based scenarios so that emerging players can identify their level of System 1 thinking. Coaches and general managers can then ask how well and how quickly their QB prospects recognize coverages and test their decisions under a variety of game situations.

Editor’s Note: As part of our Guest Stars program, NFP invited Jason Sada of Axon Sports to discuss how sport-specific, cognitive training is becoming a must have for players, both in the training facility and on their mobile devices. Axon is working on transforming the way an athlete trains for sport by developing new cognitive training apps that will accelerate the acquisition of athletic expertise. To learn more about Axon Sports, please visit axonsports.com or follow Axon on Twitter.com/@axonsports and on Facebook at Facebook.com/AxonSports

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