Should Athletes Train Their Memories?

Sure, but it probably won't help.
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LeBron James. (Photo: Domenic Gareri/Shutterstock)

LeBron James. (Photo: Domenic Gareri/Shutterstock)

In a recent ESPN piece, Brandon Weems, LeBron James' childhood friend, related the following anecdote to Brian Windhorst: "When you play Madden with him now you have to be careful which teams you take, because he will know what your game plans were in the past when you've played with him and he'll pick the opposing team knowing what plays you want to run."

The King's basketball memory is perhaps even more impressive. Again, from Windhorst's piece:

It's the middle of February now, in a game against the Golden State Warriors, and James is walking the ball down the floor with the seconds running out. The Heat are down two points and he's dribbling the final nine seconds off the clock with ace defender Andre Iguodala guarding him. James fakes a drive, then steps back and to his left in time to fire in a game-winning 3-pointer over Iguodala's fingers with 0.1 seconds left.

In the jovial postgame locker room, it's pointed out to James by a reporter that almost exactly five years earlier, he'd won a game with a jumper at Oracle Arena at the buzzer from virtually the same exact spot at the same basket.

"Not really," James says in response. "That one was probably about six feet closer to the baseline and inside the 3-point arc. It was over Ronny Turiaf, I stepped back on him but I crossed him over first and got him on his heels. I'm sure of it. It was down the sideline a few feet. It was a side out-of-bounds play; this one we brought up."

Within moments, James is watching that very 2009 highlight on a cell phone while icing his aching feet. And indeed, there it is -- the crossover step-back on Turiaf from, oh, about six feet to the left of the shot he'd just hit over Iguodala. Right along the sideline inside the 3-point line. A side out-of-bounds play. Just like he said.

I mean—what? I can't even remember what I had for breakfast, much less a shot I took in a pickup game five years ago. (In my defense, I probably missed, which makes it a bit less memorable.) James, however, is not alone. If you read enough about sports, specifically the best professional athletes, you invariably run across stories about their ability to recall moments from games long over. Baseball players can remember pitch sequences, golfers instantly recall seven irons hit to three feet on the eighth hole of TPC Whatever, skiers know the unseen bumps of the Alps.

So do elite athletes have superior memories to the rest of us? Actually, yes—according to Dr. K. Anders Ericsson, professor of psychology at Florida State University.

"Our best understanding is that improved memory does not necessarily improve performance."

"The better memory representation is assumed to be critical to the ability of the player to make anticipations and get immediate feedback on the accuracy to keep refining the anticipations," Ericsson wrote in an email. "To be able to learn, one needs to be able to have a good memory for what actually happened in the game, so one can think about situations after the game is over and design practice to help improve weaknesses." Being able to remember past situations, then, can help improve future performance.

If that's the case, would it make sense for athletes to focus on improving their memory? In the world of the NBA or the NFL or whatever sport you choose, a tiny line separates the winner from the losers. Athletes (and their trainers) are experts at building muscle mass and improving physical performance, so much so that the margins are tiny. I wondered if it might be possible that spending time improving memory would have larger benefits on performance because it would be easier to do.

As it turns out, it does not. "Our best understanding is that improved memory does not necessarily improve performance," Ericsson says.

For example, a novice chess player can improve their memory for briefly presented chess positions to the level of chess master without improving their chess playing performance. These novices are simply trying to recall pieces, whereas the chess master analyzes the game situation to extract information about the structure of the situation to be able to see the best move and plan out consequences of different move options. The chess master develops memory to support their move selection so it is tailored to the need for remembering relevant information—that is why it does not help to recall randomly re-arranged chess pieces.

LeBron James is a basketball virtuoso, talent that extends from his humongous feet all the way up to his once-in-a-generation memory. He was probably just born that way.

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