The Argument for Celebrating Success
We’ve got it all wrong in baseball!
A pitcher makes a great pitch—a slider on the black for strike three and remains emotionally neutral. Later he makes a bad pitch and walks a guy or gives up a bomb. He storms around the mound cursing into his glove. Based on what we now know about neuroscience, human behavior, and motor learning that approach is completely backwards
In Daniel Coyle’s The Talent Code, a brilliant study of the sources of talent hotbeds around the world, the author describes a recent revolution in neuroscience involving previously ignored white matter called myelin. Researchers have since identified myelin as the pivotal component of motor learning and performance.
A complex movement pattern such as throwing a baseball can be simplified into a series of electrical impulses fired to actuate muscle contractions. When the timing, strength, and sequencing of these contractions are in perfect synchronization, the body is moved to deliver the ball in the most efficient way possible. If aberrant pathways are activated, improper movement patterns and subsequent bad pitches are the result.
In the human neuromuscular system, millions of myelin producing cells wander around between the nerve fibers and wait for electrical impulses to charge them to action. As soon as a nerve fires, these cells wrap themselves around the “smoking hot” wire and secrete a layer of milky white myelin which surrounds that nerve like a blanket. This process is repeated indefinitely with every impulse resulting in an additional layer of myelin being deposited. The myelin layers act as insulation around the nerve. If you understand the physics of electricity, you know that electrical impulses always follow the path of least resistance. More densely insulated wires or nerves allow impulses to travel faster and with less resistance than non-insulated fibers. The system doesn’t discriminate between right or wrong movements. Every neuromuscular impulse (whether good or bad) results in a layer of myelin. This is how cognitive learning and motor learning occurs. Your habitual movement patterns are those you repeat with the most frequency. Some have called this “muscle memory”. It is a stark reminder that only “perfect practice makes perfect”. So the key to perfecting movement patterns and optimizing performance is to spend long hours practicing your craft perfectly. That sounds simple, and it is an indisputable truth; however, it only represents a portion of the total picture.
The neuromuscular system does not operate in a vacuum. It is intricately intertwined with input from the sensory and emotional centers of the brain. The limbic system, located in the frontal lobe of the brain, is responsible for nearly all emotions such as love, joy, fear, anger, frustration, satisfaction, etc. It sends out a vast web of fibers, which connect with nerves in every part of the brain.
In a book by A. Harry Klopf called The Hedonistic Neuron: A Theory on the Neuropsychology of Memory and Learning which I read in Physical Therapy school 20 years ago, the author describes how all neurons seek out excitation and avoid inhibition. In other words every nerve in the system wants to fire. He notes that when a neuron fires it develops a propensity to be fired again. He adds that emotional input from the limbic system accentuates the process and exponentially increases the likelihood of a nerve firing again. This would explain why we more readily learn and remember things that have powerful emotional attachments. He developed his theory in 1982–before myelin research came to the forefront.
If we blend Klopf’s theory with the research on myelin, we can speculate that emotional input (either positive or negative) might cause the myelin producing cells to become hyperactive and lay down even more layers than normal. Emotionally charged nerves would receive massive doses of myelin thereby speeding up the learning process.
So, when you celebrate an efficient neuromuscular pattern, for example, a really good pitch, you add an emotional kick and increase the likelihood of that pattern or pitch being repeated. Likewise, when you curse an inefficient pattern (e.g. a bad pitch), you almost guarantee repetition of that result.
If Mr. Klopf’s increased propensity for a neuron to fire in the presence of limbic system input is due to accelerated myelination, we have stumbled on an important variable in controlling the learning process. Controlling the process of nerve myelination then becomes critical to learning and performance. If we vigilantly apply emotion only when appropriate to efficient patterns, and simply remain stoic in the presence of inefficient patterns, we accelerate the myelination of the best neuromuscular pathway for our activity (i.e., pitching). We leave inefficient pathways unmyelinated thereby causing them to fade into obscurity like an unused rickety path in the woods. Eventually the highly insulated pathway, which is most repeated, becomes an 8 lane superhighway with virtually no resistance, and nearly every pitch jumps on that Autobahn and is maximally efficient nearly every time.* In essence, we can control learning and possibly performance by observing movement patterns, providing OBJECTIVE, non-judgemental feedback, and adding an emotional booster when appropriate.
All Science aside, here’s the application of the concept:
First, during practice find a way to measure anything that can be measured. Use a radar gun, a stopwatch, a timer, a target, a tape measure, or whatever you can find to objectively record an activity. This will provide accurate objective feedback so you’ll know when you’ve performed an efficient motor pattern. Then, if you do something well (e.g. throw an accurate pitch, bump the radar gun up by 0.5mph, move one tenth of a second faster on a drill, etc.), celebrate it vigorously. I mean really whoop it up! Intentionally and immediately apply an emotional spike to enhance the myelination of whatever circuit you fired to cause the good result. It will increase your odds of repeating that pattern, and it will make your practices livelier and lots of fun.
On the other hand, if the objective result in practice is less than optimal, stoically ignore it. Remember, the neurologic system doesn’t discriminate between positive and negative emotion, so negative feedback simply doesn’t work. You must refuse to allow that aberrant pattern to receive any more than a single layer of myelin. Let that series of nerves wither and die on the vine. The irony of reacting emotionally to bad results is that by doing so, you almost guarantee those results will be repeated. Don’t allow it.
Finally, here’s the take home message for application of this concept to game performance: Play the game with appropriately channeled emotion. I am not advocating classless taunting or exaggerated celebrations, which insult your opponent or disrespect the game. However, I see nothing wrong with playing the game with joy and getting excited when things go right. In contrast, I am in complete agreement with remaining emotionless in the face of failure or subpar performance.
Celebrate the good. Ignore the bad. It’s that simple. It’s the scientific way—It’s the ARMory way!
*Credit to my good friend Ron Wolforth at The Texas Baseball Ranch. His teachings influence nearly all my thoughts on baseball and coaching. I am sure I have stolen many of my ideas from him–albeit unintentionally./em>