Hobbies like ball games: baseball, tennis, squash, golf, soccer

Most people have hobbies. Hobbies are activities we enjoy doing. In doing them our brain makes mistakes everyday which can be considered 'normal'. Making such mistakes does not necessarily mean that your brain is damaged or beginning to decay. However, when such mistakes are made very frequently and the kind of mistakes are getting quite serious, well then you have some reason for concern. Here I will try to give examples of common 'normal brain' mistakes which will help you to differentiate between having fun or having to worry about your mistakes.

Let's start with hobbies that have a lot to do with balls (don't get me wrong), either small or large. How's your brain involved in that sort of games? Well, for one thing, you have to have a very well developed vision. The first layer of the vision process in your brain, so to speak, is focused on seeing sharply, seeing forms and backgrounds, seeing colors, seeing positions and depths, and seeing movements. When your brain regions are especially well developed in these areas, your playing a ball game is much easier for you.

For example, I used to watch birds when I was 8-11 years. Strolling around in bushes with my binoculars I managed to see a lot of birds. This kind of training for your vision (in my younger days we didn't have Nintendo's or PlayStations), is helping a lot to improve brain regions that service above mentioned areas in vision. That is one of the reasons my playing tennis is much better than my girlfriend's. Also, I am able to see a bird in bushes much quicker than the average person, not used to detect small movements.

Of course, when a young child learns to play tennis, this training helps the brain regions to improve their capacity to detect small changes in movements of the tennis ball. Because, returning a tennis ball with a racket does not seem to be a big deal but in fact it is pretty difficult. To my knowledge, I don't know of any robots that can play tennis as humans can. First of all, the speed of the ball has to be calculated accurately enough so you know at least when to start your racket to hit this ball. This kind of planning where to hit the ball, how quickly to move your racket, requires several different brain regions coordinating closely together. Not only vision regions (more at the back of your brain), but also motor regions and motor planning regions (more to the front), are necessary. People underestimate easily how much your brain is working when you play tennis (or another high speed ball game). They think that your arms or legs need a lot of strength, or your heart-lung condition should be excellent. Of course, that as well. But...the most important thing that has to be optimized is your brain.

Just try to play tennis when you haven't slept for a few days, I'll bet you will loose. Just try to play it when you are a bit drunk. Just try to play it when you have just heard that you are fired unexpectedly. If your brain wasn't involved that much in playing tennis or golf or baseball, well then it should be no problem to play an excellent game under such exceptional circumstances, would it?

Take baseball. When the pitcher throws the ball towards you, your brain is really cooking. It has to calculate the speed ánd movements of this ball, and exceptionally fast. It does that only from snapshots of the ball, against a background of green grass. In fact, your brain has to analyze a lot of pictures of that ball in different positions, to accurately calculate the ball's speed and it's position when it will reach your optimal hitting position. How dependent your brain is on correct interpretations of the ball's images you can test with a stroboscope. Just try to hit a baseball coming towards you in a large dark hall where there is only the light of a stroboscope. When this stroboscope gives high frequency light emissions, you will have not much trouble in hitting this ball. However, when the frequency of the stroboscope is much lower, then I don't think you will hit any ball correctly. Your vision processing will need a lot of space, orientation, figure-background information of this ball, to calculate it's exact speed and movements. 


The Wii and ball games: consciousness and the automatic brain

You'll probably know the baseball game on the Nintendo's Wii. The first time I took a swing at the ball that was thrown to me I missed. Although I haven't played baseball for many years, I must say I good hit the balls quite well. How come this was not working with the Wii? Well, my brain has to interpret the images of that ball on the screen and those images are less clear than in reality. It took a couple of swings before I finally hit that ball.

There was another very interesting thing in playing baseball on the Wii. I noticed that when I actually focused on my motor feeling hów to swing my bat (remote controller) (which I could remember from my playing baseball in my high school years), then it was easier to hit the ball on the TV-screen! That's amazing! I wasn't sure this only happened to me so I asked my colleague at the rehab center. He is a very skilled sports coach, can do almost any sports exceptionally well, and he plays the Wii as well. He confirmed my analysis: when focusing on your body and motor movements much more than just the TV-screen, he hit this baseball much better, just as I did. How come?

Well, there is something that only very skilled sports people know about the brain. Whenever you are using your consciousness too much, you will actually hinder or disturb your motor performances. That's because using too much (conscious) attention is a frontal process which tries to steer the more automatic (routine) motor (planning) processes in your brain. And since attention (or consciousness) is much slower than your automatic brain processing, it hinders this routine-like processing. You can compare it with walking the stairs. Whenever you try to think quickly about your steps on the stairs, consciously, then the risk of falling from those stairs in increasing dramatically (please don't try this!). Do not break into already very well developed and automated brain processing! It worsens your performance. That's the reason a goal keeper in soccer is better in catching a ball when he trusts his reflexes. Actually, he is even quicker when he trusts them and doesn't think about his responses! This has really been investigated.

The same reasons apply to shooting. I am much better at pistol shooting when I try to relax and let my unconscious brain do the automatic processing needed to shoot correctly. Also, in Wii playing the shooting game, I am much better in shooting down ducks and balloons whenever I don't think much about it and just shoot instinctively.

The same goes for a swing in golf: you hit the ball perfectly whenever you don't think too much about it. You'll have to focus on your right positioning and holding your club and let your brain do the automatic processing. Do not let any conscious thought distract this kind of automatic motor processing.

The best ball players in the world are the ones who have excellent brain conditions and are able to meditate. Meaning: not thinking much, not having many thoughts and just letting their automatic brain regions flow. The hardest task in achieving super performances in sports, especially with ball games, is to have just enough emotional tension without using too much thoughts. Usually, the 'willing to win' thought is way too much intense in a sportsman. It is coupled with a lot of intense emotion and both will hinder the automatic brain processing units. Sportsmen who are able to control their 'willing to win' thoughts including the intense related emotions, are the ones who will perform the best. The ones who really trust themselves or their automatic brains.It is really a shame that so many coaches still do not get it and focus way too much on training condition, strength and physique. But...the trend is slowly changing towards more sports psychology. It is never too late to learn.

In summary, I focused here on the common mistake to think too much when moving around or trying to hit a moving ball. I tried to explain that brain vision regions and motor regions are very active in playing ball games. Whenever such regions are well developed and trained, the focus for a better performance should lie on concentration and meditation to control your (conscious) thoughts. Not interfering in your automatic brain processing will very likely lead to the best motor performances. 


Non ball games and your brain

I talked about ball games. But there are other sports in which there isn't a ball at all. Like jogging, cycling, car racing, shooting, skiing, swimming, running (100m), jumping. In all those sports your brain has to work optimally to give perfect performances. Let's give some examples.

Take cycling. The Tour de France just finished (2010) and Lance Armstrong, whom I happen to admire, had some bad days in which he was involved in several falls. How come? He never fell (well almost never) when he was at his top and won the earlier Tours. Something to do with his 'older' body? No not really. Something to do with his brain. Not just bad luck as a lot of people would say. Cycling in a group isn't that easy and in fact more exhausting than being on your own. Because the brain has to process much more when you are in a group. It has to constantly monitor all the other cyclists, it sees a lot of moving parts (legs, wheels, heads), much more than when you are in a small group at the front of the peloton (platoon in English). This takes much more drain from your attentional systems than people realize. You'll not only get more tired mentally but your attentional capacities diminish sooner than when you're alone. And just that can be a reason that Lance was not able to foresee several falls or at least was not able to react to them adequately. Of course, it does not help much when you are at the back of a large cycling group because then you are more likely to be in the middle of a fall. But Lance did not fall exclusively in large groups in this Tour, he also fell where there really were no good reasons to fall. He did not seem to have that upper concentration level anymore, nor the exceptional drive he had years ago. He couldn't of course, due to his relatively old age. His brain is aging too you know.

What I like to point out really, is that our brain is constantly working and that it's work load varies every second. Due to the tasks it has to do. In cycling, descending from a mountain is much more attention demanding than climbing. Loosing your concentration can be very dangerous in a high speed descent.

Another example of your brain working at high speed is car racing, Formula one. Michael Schumacher was one of the best drivers ever. Not a coincidence that his reaction times are way beyond average: he can do multiple things at the same time in a mind-blowing period. That has helped him to go through curves in high speed so efficiently that he had the fastest laps. Several milliseconds without concentration on the driving tasks can be fatal. To deliver such kind of intense concentration your body has to have an outstanding condition, including your brain. Optimal oxygen and glucose intake is necessary. But again, not having to deal with distracting thoughts, optimizes performance which then totally relies on your automatic motor and brain processing. Then you can have optimal divided attention and concentration. So, being in the middle of a turbulent divorce, having just lost your father, does not make a good performance. A healthy mind in a healthy body, this saying is very very true.

Jumping, the high jump, is another example. To do this exceptionally well, several brain regions must function optimally. Again, your vision regions are necessary to calculate the exact spot where your jump starts. Considering your speed in the run towards the stick. Your brain has to divide its attention between the right spot on the ground where you start your high jump, and the stick itself (in order not to hit it). Every single distraction, be it a strange sound from the public or a disturbing thought, can hinder the brain's automatic processing in this high jump. It is one of the most difficult sports there is. No jump is ever exactly the same.

Ice skating is a sport where planning and dividing your attention is important as well. Most people just think that in such physical sports like skating no brain activity is really necessary. It is just about your muscles...Well, think again. Recently, some new rules are introduced that have met a lot of resistance in professional ice skaters (especially in the Netherlands). One of those rules demands that a skater really stays on his own lane and no touches of the side lines are allowed. This is not only very difficult to see because the lines are not clearly visible when you are bending forward and a lot of strong lights shine in your face. But also your planning and divided attention has to be optimal. You have to focus on your movements (this takes a lot of concentration as well, especially when you are getting tired) but you have to focus on the lines as well. A lot of ice skaters make their mistakes when approaching the last 100 meters before the finish line. Driven by their emotions (eager to win) their working memory reduces and less attention can be spent on several things at once. So either their focus on their movements increases and they go a bit faster, or their focus is increased on not touching the side lines of their lane. In this last situation their speed most likely will be less optimal. In the first situation their speed will indeed increase but at the cost of accuracy (the famous speed-accuracy trade-off). In such situations their planning: their sequencing of all actions should be highly overtrained so that this will require less cognitive control (= attention). Because these new rules are NOT trained in those professional skaters, it can be expected that it will take some months of training to achieve an equally high performance as today. So, the easiest way for the ice skaters is to protest...against these new rules. But...eventually they have to and will adapt. If they are flexible ;).

Like playing darts, a very underestimated sport (more about it in relation to emotions in later paragraphs). Of course, physically it requires not that much of your body. However, mentally it requires very much: a high level of concentration and very quick calculation skills. Furthermore, you have to plan very flexibly and quickly, especially when your throw is not in the parts where you had calculated (planned) it. Thát is the reason that your focus in darts is so energy-consuming: it takes a lot of calculations per second to decide where to throw your dart. And doing that in noisy surroundings requires a very high level of focus (to shut down all other noises and distractions). Very good darters do NOT drink any alcohol or at least not such an amount to get tipsy or even drunk. Alcohol seriously reduces one's ability to focus and to think flexibly. It hinders your planning speed, so playing darts at a very high level and drinking won't go together (as in other sports). However, as always there is more to it than meets the eyes. There is a sneaky trade-off: alcohol can ease your mind and it can give you just enough tension reduction to counter your stress. Whenever a sportsman is stressed too much, in that these emotions clearly hinder his mental (cognitive) abilities, then a little alcohol can reduce this tension. Just enough to counteract the negative effects of anxiety. Of course, this is not the ideal scenario of performing or doing sports because either way it is choosing between two awkward situations: taking alcohol which always can reduce your mental abilities or trying to perform under high levels of stress which are also known to reduce your mental abilities.

A final example in sports is shooting, either with a rifle or gun. A sport that does not seem to require much physical activity. In fact, that is largely true but keeping a nicely balanced stance requires some physical condition. Your muscles must be strong enough to hold this stance for at least 10 minutes. Because...otherwise your conscious attention has to be focused too much on holding your right stance. That reduces your limited focus (=attention) on the actual shooting process. Shooting requires a complete control of and coordination between your pointing finger and your eyes. Furthermore, it requires a complete control over your breathing, muscle tension and emotions. Especially this last one is very difficult. Wanting to shoot precisely usually results in less adequate shooting. It seems this wanting interferes with the unconscious/automatic processes that calculate (plan) how your pointing finger should move and how you perceive the bulls eye. The best results I got in shooting - as most shooters - was when I was very relaxed and even didn't realize I pulled the trigger. So high was my concentration on the bulls eye that I forgot all about muscle tension, my stance and finger. In this example, planning (actually calculation of how to sequence all required actions) takes place unconsciously and that is normally always the case. That simply is the reason no one seems to know that we plan constantly in almost everything we do. 


Mental hobbies

Now you have seen how your brain is involved in physical sports, I'll talk a bit about mental sports like playing chess, sudoku, bingo, cross word puzzles, checkers (or draughts), or a nice combination of mental and physical: darts.

Of course, everyone knows that to play chess this requires a lot of brain functioning. Top chess players like Kasparov or the late Bobby Fisher, are not exceptionally better than other people in their memory or attention capacities. They are better in memorizing a whole lot of different chess configurations. And probably, their creativity is much higher than normal (although difficult to measure). This means that they have to be much more flexible in thinking and making associations than others. Bobby Fisher certainly was creative and added a whole bunch of new initiatives in chess playing.

Playing darts is a very interesting example of brain functioning. You would not think of it when you see a lot of darts players ;), but it takes quite a lot of brain power to play darts really well. You have to calculate rather quickly and your motor system has to be good. And again, you have to be extremely good in concentration, letting your thoughts go and relying heavily on your eye-hand coordination (automatic motor processing).

One very interesting phenomenon in darts is the so-called 'dartitis'. It shows the very intimate relationship between emotions and our motor functions. It is the phenomenon that sometimes after practicing a lot, the throwing-arm seems to freeze completely or the fingers freeze and can't let go of the dart. No throw is then possible or the dart is released too late. Even if someone wants to throw, the arm can not make the movement and freezes. It is not explained by a physical paralysis or muscle spasm because there is no muscle spasm. Someone can move his arm and lay his dart down on a table. After a break, it is possible that trying to throw the dart again, this freezing occurs a second time. The consequences of this 'freezing' are serious: most darters, eager to win, feel a large drop in confidence and are from that moment on quite terrified to throw again. This anxiety does not seem to diminish automatically.

But WHAT is dartitis? It is indeed a serious condition and best to be described as a neuromuscular stress disorder. To explain it I have to tell you more about the brain, stress, emotions and movements. 

Emotions, stress and the brain

First of all, you have to know that whenever you do something, like throwing a dart, putting in golf, your brain generates muscle programming instructions to regulate several different muscles to actually performing the movement. This is always done with a certain amount of 'drive', more specifically, with a certain amount of emotions. The most likely basic emotions that will be coupled with this movement are anxiety ánd anger. There always is a delicate balance between anxiety and anger: normally, anger is a bit stronger than anxiety. If you would only have anxiety in trying to move, there would be no movement at all: you would freeze completely. Just as you sometimes freeze in your dreams when trying to get away from a dangerous situation (but you can't). The right kind of determination or drive just gives you enough emotional intensity (anger) to move (forward). However, we also know from research that muscle tension increases both with the emotion anger and anxiety.

Muscle tension is a very very complicated mechanism, well, at least the control of it. It is not only controlled by lower-level structures in or near the muscles itself, nor in the spinal cord, but also in the basal ganglia and the motor regions in the neocortex itself. How exactly is not known yet. For this to understand, movement and muscle tension control is a very complicated and sophisticated system.

However, we do know that the emotional brain systems like the amygdala, hippocampus, parts of the prefrontal regions, and anterior thalamic nuclei, are influencing the motor (brain) systems and vice versa. The delicate and intricate neurological connections between emotions and movements can simply be observed in a new-born. When a baby is having fun, more movements are generated (from excitement). When a baby gets scared or start to cry, you can easily feel the muscle tension increasing. When the brain starts to grow, more control regions like the frontal lobes, start to develop and more inhibitions are made possible. That is, simply put, a reason that we as adults can become very excited but do not jump around that much as a new-born (well, some of us still do).

My point is, emotions can and do control movements, more specifically, muscle tensions (contractions and relaxations). Now my hypothesis is, which has as yet to be scientifically validated, that muscle control can collapse suddenly when this delicate system is 'over-stimulated'. Doing too much repetitive movements very quickly can show this phenomenon: suddenly the muscles freeze and there seems to be a muscle spasm. Normally, this is no spasm with the accompanying pain, but it certainly is a shut-down of the normal muscle control system. At that moment it is certainly possible that the higher brain regions (supplementary motor areas or premotor areas) loose their control over lower brain movement control regions. As if there is a disconnection. The brain has lost the 'connection', the pathways to control the lower-level movement control centers. When this kind of connection-loss lasts long enough (it can occur in just a minute), the brain may not be able to find this 'connection-pathway' again. It suddenly does not control the movement that good anymore, as if there is a sudden paralysis. And yes, there IS indeed a temporary paralysis. This can be so startling, so frightening that another process kicks in, immediately after the 'freezing': emotions intensify and here there is only one emotion increasing dramatically: anxiety. Stress hormones are released, muscle tensions build up and the result of this is even more 'disconnection'. The higher brain regions will not 'find' the correct pathway to control movements again. This kind of pathways, or connections in the brain itself, can not be measured yet, so here we have to speculate.

In dartitis several conditions must be met to develop this serious disorder. First of all, there has to be a lot of repetitive movement so a certain motor-control pathway is formed in the brain. A so-called 'motor-memory' is developed in which all parameters are stored such as what muscles to contract or relax and whén to do this (timing). In my opinion, this is so precise that even the slightest change in stance and in grip of your hand, can lead to a totally different throw. So, the repetitions have to be extremely accurate in order to have a movement pathway with almost exactly the same parameters, over and over again. Such a motor memory trace is then deepened and deepened, as if you carve the same path over and over again in a piece of rock.

Repetition however is NOT enough. Secondly, there has to be enough emotion involved namely: anxiety. I am pretty much convinced that a certain threshold of anxiety is needed to 'do the trick': to develop a disturbance in the movement control mechanisms. Perhaps, in reaching the anxiety threshold, a shutdown is initiated (most likely of chemical origin) and the contact between higher order and lower level motor control systems is lost. What you have to know that your brain always develops an up-to-date online map of your movements and body. With such a shutdown, this map may not be accurate enough, and the pathway to this specific movement is lost. It resembles pretty much the body neglect syndrome in stroke patients, but also the apraxia phenomenon in which patients are not able to voluntarily initiate a movement. The same can happen in Parkinson's disease, caused by basal ganglia disturbances. It is also found in the so-called 'conversion' disorder, a complete misnomer in which voluntary movements are not possible due to higher motor regions having lost contact with lower-level motor regions. Involuntary movements, or indirect ways to make the wished movements, are possible in these conditions. Proving that there is no serious muscle problem.

The above speculation (it has not been proven beyond any doubt yet), can explain several things. It can explain why not everyone will develop dartitis. Because not everyone is so ambitious or striving for perfection. It can explain that it only occurs in serious and ambitious darters. Because ambition and drive to win causes much more anxiety and stress than just playing for fun. It can explain that it helps to alter your throw parameters (another stance, another grip, another weight, different conditions like throwing in the dark). Because the freezing phenomenon or movement disturbance occurs at very specific movement parameters (in certain specific conditions). This is so specific that altering even a few movement parameters can change the intensity of the disturbance. It can also explain suggested 'cures' for dartitis like the controversial Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT) and practising other throws without any intention to score. Because EFT focuses on emotions that people are not really aware of having and in this process underlying cognitions are changed and so are the accompanying emotions. Also good cognitive (behavior) therapy can do the same, probably even Eye Movement Desensitisation Processing (EMDR). What matters is that patients change their way of thinking and feeling, no matter how that is accomplished.

For more information on Dartitis and similar conditions see the link below to an article found on the Internet. 

Link to dr. Jan Graydon article 


Tips for darters with darteritis

Now there are darters who want to know more clearly how they can get rid of their dartitis. The given explanation of dartitis seems interesting but they are now wondering: well, what the…, what can we do to recover from dartitis? I can give you some tips, purely based on logical reasoning and my hypothesis of a neuromuscular stress disorder. However, I am not a darts specialist, have never treated patients with dartitis. So, all my tips are not based on experience but on logical reasoning. I’d like to hear from darters with dartitis whether my tips are BS or really helping. Please give some feedback via the feedback forms!

Tips for darters met darteritus:

1. Be sure to change your throw. By changing the weight of the dart, by throwing with a ball of paper. Or just hold the dart completely different, so that your hand and fingers are placed differently. Change your pulse movement as well. 

The underlying idea is that the brain representation of the complete dart throw is one big memory trace that has to be formed differently in your brain. It is this old memory trace that obviously triggers the focal dystonia= the local muscle spasm or muscle control problems. Changing this memory trace by breaking in in its parameters, then a similar memory trace is formed but this trace can be quite different so that it does not trigger the muscle control problems. The risk is, according to memory theory, that this changed throw can be associated with the muscle control problems as well. Whenever this happens – your changed throw triggers your dartitis – then you have to stop immediately with this throw and change it even more.

2. Be sure to change your mind set when practising your different throw. Learn to throw very relaxed, without heavy ‘have to- emotions’. Every intense emotion like anxiety or anger is unwise.

The idea is that muscle control problems are the result of an association between very intense emotions and too intens (repetitive) muscle control. What is that with emotions, a lot of darters may ask. I don’t have them when throwing, they always say. Well, then let me explain to you that you do not have to experience an emotion consciously, but you DO have emotions, always! In every throw or any action a human being does, there is always an emotion coupled with this action. That is why rehearsing a throw with a consciously triggered other emotion is wise. Usually, humor is a tension reducing emotion and it helps to reduce any form of muscle tension. In combination with changing your mind-set. Every throw has to be re-coupled with relaxing emotions. Do as if you just don’t care where the dart lands or how your throw goes. Get rid of the devilish ‘have to’-thoughts. Only when you have practised this a lot there is a chance that another association between your throw and your emotions is formed.

Please note this: the association between your intense emotion(s) and the muscle control problem has been formed definitely after dartitis. It will never go away in your brain! That is the reason that – after having developed serious dartitis – you will be more vulnerable to the recurrence of dartitis. This may mean that playing any competition will not be possible anymore, just because during such competition your emotions will be intense.

3. tip 2 is the most difficult one because you have to learn to look quite differently towards throwing a dart. The ‘have to’ thoughts have to be destroyed! This may mean that you have to stop with competition for weeks or even months. Just because of a high risk of getting your dartitis back again. You have to train yourself to control your intense emotions again. Changing your mindset is the only way and that takes a lot of practice and time. Mindfulness can help you with this: focus on the here and now without having to do anything. Simply said, very difficult to do.

4. Do not worry too much that you have developed dartitis. It is temporary. However, every little bit of more stress makes your condition even worse and any muscle tension will not be reduced. The chances are that you will not get rid of your dartitis when you stress yourself. 


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