Basketball pros read pinkies to call shots

By Ewen Callaway Professional basketball players read pinkies, not palms, to tell whether a shot will swoosh through the basket or clang off the rim. A team of neuroscientists showed 10 Italian league players videos of free throw shots, variously missed and made. The shots were frozen at various stages – before the ball left a player’s hand, to the instant before it reached the basket. Coaches and experienced basketball journalists watched the same footage, as did as novices. Unsurprisingly, the pros proved much better and quicker at calling shots, compared to experienced basketball watchers and novices. Less than half a second into the shot, as the player still cradled the ball, pros guessed “in” or “out” well above chance. In contrast, coaches, journalists and novices reached that criterion only after the ball left the player’s fingers. The difference seems to be that the pros play out the shot in their brains, allowing them to make a call just from looking at the player’s body, says Salvatore Aglioti, of the Sapienza University of Rome, Italy. When his team repeated the experiment with subjects wired to a device that measured activity in the brain regions controlling two arm muscles, they found that the pros relied on a circuit that harnesses the abductor digiti minimi – the pinkie’s main muscle. Early in the video, pros activated this region during missed balls, but not during shots that swished in. The other groups’ brain activities remained the same, no matter the time point or whether the shot was a brick or a basket. Aglioti speculates that professionals can read the spin imparted on the ball by focusing on the flick of the pinkie. “When you get experience, you predict the future of an action by looking at the body,” he says. Journal reference: Nature Neuroscience, DOI:
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