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The Game Slowed Down

Athletes often claim that their breakthroughs come when a game starts unfolding at a slower pace. Can psychology explain the phenomenon they're describing?
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(Photo: pmillera4/Flickr)

(Photo: pmillera4/Flickr)

The relationship between professional athletes and sports beat writers is based on a mutually agreed upon lie.

Writers have deadlines, athletes want to go home, and so the two sides agree to a sort of truce during post-game interviews. The athlete will give a reporter one or two meaty quotes, the writer will use them without prying too much into the athlete's personal life, the recorders and equipment will get packed up, and everyone will call it a night. This is why you end up with sports sections chock full of the same cliché adages.

In fact, every section of Major League Baseball's marathon of a season has its own overused saying. During spring training, dozens of athletes check into camp “in the best shape of their lives.” Postseason games are when any number of remaining players will claim that “every game is game seven.” But during the actual season, there's one that tends to get lobbed more often than the rest.

“The game slowed down for me,” they say.

"The signals going from their eyeballs to the visual part of their brain [are] much more efficient, which means they can be processed faster and responded to faster."

This is generally uttered whenever a player makes the leap from an unproven talent to worthwhile pro, and it's certainly not only in baseball. Every professional athletic pursuit is filled with claims about the slowed-down speed in which a newly blessed athlete sees the game. Even golfers—a sport that has no clock, no pressure of a collapsing pocket, and no rapidly developing plays—allude to how the game has slowed down for them.

What exactly is the experience these athletes are trying to describe? And how does it relate to what the rest of us normals are doing?

It's important to parse the actual sentence. When an athlete says the game slowed down, it doesn't mean that the game has, you know, literally slowed down for them. “Clearly the ball doesn't slow down,” says sports psychologist Dr. Jim Taylor, author of Prime Sport: Triumph of the Athlete's Mind. “But the signals going from their eyeballs to the visual part of their brain [are] much more efficient, which means they can be processed faster and responded to faster.”

One comparison to what the athletes experience can be found in the medium of film. To capture “normal” motion, a film operator will photograph 24 frames of film per second. If they want something to be in slow motion, they'll “over-crank” the camera to create more than 24 photos per second. Playing those extra photographs at the same speed elongates the timeline and creates an effect of slowed action. (Relatively new research suggesting that we all experience the world through snapshots rather than continuous movement makes this comparison even more appropriate.)

For football players, “over-cranking the camera” translates into seeing plays develop more slowly and spotting gaps in the defense with enough time to capitalize on them. In basketball, the spacing on the floor opens up long enough to allow your mind to realize it and thrust a one-arm bounce-pass through it. For baseball players, it's the speed of the ball that slows down, which is important, seeing as it is impossible for the human brain to make a conscious decision as quick as it takes a major leaguer to hit an approaching 95mph fastball.

“We can't process information to actively think, well, what am I seeing? What adjustments can I make? How should I do that?” says Ericka Carlson, a sports psychologist based in San Francisco. “That's absolutely pattern recognition. Their brain has literally mapped it so they can instantly recognize what's coming at them.”

Athletes achieve this state of being—which, since we're throwing out quasi-spiritualistic terms here, is at least partially related to the state of “flow”—through a variety of methods. Whether or not the “10,000 Hour Rule” Malcolm Gladwell touted in Outliers actually holds up (spoiler: nope), practicing anything a whole bunch of times does make someone better at it. For any athlete to rise to the professional level of play, they must handle hundreds of hours of game situations, see thousands of pitches, or take maybe a million shots. All that experience adds up to seeing patterns without even knowing they are, and this is where non-athletic types can relate.

Play enough chess matches—or Settlers of Catan, if that's more your speed—and you notice possible strategies developing far earlier than newbies. Cook your “famous” potatoes au gratin dish a dozen times, and you don't need to call up the recipe anymore. And the 16-year-old-on-a-learner's-permit version of you surely didn't make the exquisite weaves into and out of traffic that your adult self pulls every day during rush hour congestion. That's simple experience linking the right brain synapses together. But rather than knowing when to go after the Longest Road or how to bake a spud, athletes have another particular set of skills.

Which isn't to say all it takes is practice, practice, practice. There's certainly a combination of lucky genetics and training that leads to ever-heightening competition, which propels the athlete's ability higher and higher. And even then, as any sports fan can tell you, sometimes that's not even enough. Every team has one or two stories of high-profile draft picks turning in lackluster performances. What happens when thousands of practice hours and strong inherent athleticism don't translate into success?

“We have a lot going on between the ears,” Carlson says. “A lot of what mental training addresses is how do we start being selective about what you pay attention to.”

Carlson compares the mind to Wi-Fi. We only have so much bandwidth, so it needs space cleared up to interpret relevant information that the game is presenting us. If you're thinking about what groceries you need to buy while you're playing third base, you're not going to be that effective.

“A simple exercise is to have [athletes] list out their common negative thoughts,” Carlson says. A batter stepping up to the plate in an important situation may think that they better not blow this chance, so Carlson teaches him to worry less about the outcome and more about what he’s doing in that moment with his body. “Follow through, keep your elbows close,” Carlson says. “Something small that's related to technique, but simple so they have a high level of confidence in doing.”

To normalize athletes to the actions on the field, Taylor uses reps of a different sort: mental reps.

“Imagery fools the body into thinking it's doing the performance,” Taylor says. With enough reps under your belt, mental or otherwise, the body will over-crank the camera, and, thusly, the game will slow down.

His go-to example is Alpine downhill skier Mikaela Shiffrin. During the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi, 18-year-old Shiffrin was asked if she was nervous about participating in her first Olympics. Her response was, well, these aren't my first Olympics:

I've envisioned this moment for quite a while. I've visualized myself on the top step of the podium, and on the third step of the podium. I've envisioned myself crashing, because I know what mistake I (would have) made to crash, and I know I'm not going to do that in the race.

Running reps through her head—every sliver of ice on every turn, every scenario in which something didn't go exactly right—prepared her for the biggest event of her life. When she made a mistake halfway through her second run, causing both of her skis to leave the ground—a big no-no in downhill slalom—she didn't panic, over-correct the error, and tumble into the snow. Instead, she stretched out those vital milliseconds through practiced over-cranking, shifted her body back into the correct position, and quickly got back on track for the rest of the run.

Since she'd spent previous mental reps prepping for that moment, since the “game slowed down for her” on that fateful turn, she walked home as the youngest Olympic slalom gold medal winner in history.

The Sociological Imagination is a regular Pacific Standard column exploring the bizarre side of the everyday encounters and behaviors that society rarely questions.