May 18, 2012

Making Better Football Decisions

Via Dan Peterson

During the kickoff game of the 2011 NFL season, the defending Super Bowl champion Green Bay Packers edged out the New Orleans Saints in a classic shootout.  Both quarterbacks, Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees displayed that extra dimension that is required of today’s signal callers – a synergy of in-game pattern recognition and deep football tactical knowledge.  Recent research in another high-stress line of work highlights this skill which quickly separates the athletic but ineffective passers from the complete quarterbacks.

In a recent Grantland article, Chris Brown, expert analyst at Smart Football, described one particular play of that September game that stood out, “Rodgers lined up in the shotgun and saw that Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams had called for a pressure look (though not an all-out blitz), coupled with man-to-man coverage on his receivers. Rodgers made a signal for his receivers to run quick routes against their defenders and away from the safeties who remained deep. He called for the snap, and everything seemed to go to plan. His offensive line picked up the blitz and the Saints were in the coverage he expected.”

However, the play did not go exactly as planned.  Brown continues, “Rodgers’ primary read on the new play, Randall Cobb, a rookie from Kentucky, ran the wrong route. Fortunately, however, Cobb followed the coaching adage that if he was going to make a mistake he’d at least make it at full speed. Although he missed his route, Cobb burst upfield several steps and broke inside on a slant, thereby completely turning around Saints defensive back Roman Harper. Cobb caught a simple pass from Rodgers, juked safety Malcolm Jenkins and leaped over the goal line for his first career touchdown.”

How did the Green Bay QB pull this off?  Brown concludes, “Rodgers was able to make the play with such little backyard football flexibility because the rest of his thought process against a blitz — when the pressure is most on and offensive and defensive mistakes are magnified — was so disciplined; his identification of the defense and check at the line was so good that even a busted play could go for a touchdown.”

This ability of not only knowing what to look for but then what to do about it is the difference maker for QBs as they advance to the next level, whether it be high school, college or the NFL.

Brown breaks down the essential tasks, “Teaching a quarterback where and when to throw a football is primarily a function of teaching two things: pre-snap reads and post-snap confirmation. Defenses get better every year at disguising their intentions, but they can still only disguise so much. Quarterbacks can still focus on specific areas and determine who the potential threats are. Then, once the play has begun, the quarterback must determine if his original diagnosis was correct.”

Of course, this recognition and decision process is much easier sitting in a film room than in a live game situation.  The key is to be an intelligent observer focusing in on specific visual targets that will trigger a decision tree based on learned tactics.  Joan Vickers, kinesiology professor at the University of Calgary, has created the term “quiet eye” to describe this gaze control technique.  She defines it as “the final fixation or tracking gaze that is located on a specific object or location in the task environment within three degrees of visual angle (or less) for a minimum duration of 100 ms.”

Giving an athlete’s brain the few fractions of second to focus on the right target helps their proprioception or their sense of relative position.  “An optimal quiet eye period also acts like a GPS system that feeds into the brain the specific x, y, and z spatial coordinates needed for the action to be organized optimally in space over time,” explains Vickers.

Practicing quiet eye gaze control has been proven to help target oriented athletes including hockey and soccer goaltenders, baseball pitchers and basketball players with their shooting.  Speaking of shooting, imagine the complex scenarios and pressure situations faced every day by police officers in the line of duty.  For QBs, the worst case scenario is an interception.  Obviously, the stakes are much higher for law enforcers.

Paul Ward, psychology professor at Michigan Tech University and a member of the Axon Sports Science Advisory Board, recently reported on research he led examining the gaze and decision-making of experienced SWAT officers versus less-skilled rookie officers.  They were presented with 20 different video crime simulations with different outcomes, some violent, some resolved peacefully.

The officers were asked to verbally report their options available during an assessment phase (pre-snap) and during the intervention phase (post-snap).  As predicted, Ward and his team found that the experienced officers were able to develop a higher-quality and more extensive list of options during assessment which could be used successfully during intervention.  In football terms, they knew how to read the defense and react to surprise after-snap movements by the enemy.

“The ultimate goal for us is to improve the performance of those who make really critical decisions on a daily basis,” Ward said.

In June, Axon is releasing its first Athletic Brain Trainer application for football that allows players in all positions to practice their gaze and decision-making skills with hundreds of formation repetitions in a single practice session.  Already tested by elite college players in our lab at Athletes’ Performance, it is now ready on the iPhone and iPad platforms.  This release represents the first step on our journey to help you “Train Above The Neck”.

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