This episode we’re talking with Dr. Steve Bain, who is a volleyball coach at Northwest University and neuroscience expert doing research at the University of Washington. We discuss the idea of “playing multiple sports makes you better”, we get deeper into specificity of motor programs, we look at the traditional idea of hand-eye coordination, left-brain / right-brain and much, much more. Get ready for some big words!
Chris McGown: Welcome to the Volleyball Life podcast, with Gold Medal Squared. I’m Chris McGown and today our guest is Dr. Steve Bain. Steve is a neuroscience researcher at the University of Washington and is also the head coach at Northwest University up in the Seattle area. We’re talking with Steve today about some myths with respect to athletes, with respect to brain science, and we get into such things as multi-sport athletes and where is there value or perceived value in that and where is some of that value perhaps misplaced. We talk about hand-eye coordination, we talk about left-brain, right-brain, we talk about muscle memory. Steve kind of lays out some of the science for us and talks to us about the way the brain works and the way that the science is supported kind of discovery and where some of these myths have originated and what the actual truth is behind them. So, I think you’ll find this really interesting and thanks for joining us.
Well, thanks for joining us on the Gold Medal Squared podcast, the Volleyball Life, and joining us today is Steve Bain, Dr. Steve Bain. Steve, I don’t want to introduce you the wrong way, so, when you introduce yourself – you probably don’t need to introduce yourself too often – but as, “Hi, I’m Dr. Steve Bain.” But in any case, what do you consider yourself these days? Volleyball coach probably, but your background’s in neuroscience, right?
Steve Bain: Well, my background is a little bit more general. It would be physiology, pharmacology, anatomy, based on my training in veterinary science. But over the course of my career, I became interested in neuroscience primarily from a perspective of the sensory mechanisms that are associated with pain, different forms of pain. I developed a lot of interest in neurobiology from that perspective and currently I’m in the department of orthopedics and sports medicine at the University of Washington. Our research is in fact focused on how biomechanical, muscular, skeletal movements regulate bone mass, and it turns out that nerves play a really big role in that. So, a lot of our funding is based on how nerves and how the brain interacts with your skeleton, which is probably obscure to most people because they just think of bone as this inanimate, mechanical, strut. But if you’ve ever broken a bone we know that bones have nerves, because it hurts.
Chris McGown: Yes, it does. I want to jump back to that, but tell me a little bit about how you got involved in volleyball. We talked earlier and you were a high school football coach not long after graduating from Northern Arizona University, and then somehow became a volleyball coach.
Steve Bain: I ascribed to the John Wooden thesis that if you want to be a coach then you need to have a degree in education. So I had a degree in education and when my wife and I had kids, we didn’t have football players. We got volleyball players.
Chris McGown: Sure. I’ve got a couple of those, yeah.
Steve Bain: They became really interested in the sport and just like they were interested in soccer, or what have you, and each step along the way they always seemed to need a coach, and because I had this background in education and coaching I was always the one that got volunteered to help coach their teams. I got interested in coaching because my daughter needed a club volleyball coach and I was abysmal the first time I ever tried to coach volleyball. I really didn’t know what I was doing. I decided that I couldn’t continue to be a disaster at this, so I went to a USAV cap one course at Grand Canyon College, and the cadre included John Kessel. That’s getting close to 20 years ago now. John sort of introduced me to the field and King’s High School needed a volleyball coach and they were foolish enough to hire me and I was foolish enough to accept and then we had a lot of success at King’s.
And really started to have a lot of success after I met your dad and Jim McLaughlin and really went down the path of understanding how motor learning principles could – and should be – applied in the way that we train out athletes. So, everything I know about motor learning is really to be blamed on your father.
Chris McGown: That’s awesome.
Steve Bain: I hold him personally responsible. Because he got me interested in the field and \ it kind of duck tailed with my interest in neurobiology. I spent the last decade trying to understand motor learning from that framework.
Chris McGown: This ties in nicely to, I think, my interest in our conversation and you and I have talked about this over probably the years, but certainly recently. I’d like your – I guess – just to kind of get the conversation going on the idea of specificity to some degree and motor learning. But to some of the common wisdom that probably is maybe false or certainly misplaced and some of the ideas that are getting thrown around out there, that really don’t have necessarily a basis on science and in fact are probably well-intended and there’s some value to some of the things that are being purported but really, the science doesn’t support.
The thing, I think, that got me going the most was recently Urban Meyer, I think at Ohio State, is a football coach, was the one that I saw talking about it the most, was just the fact that he didn’t want only football players. That he thought that kids that played multiple sports made better football players, that he liked that in his athletes. I think the notion maybe got twisted from what Meyer intended, or maybe this was his intent all along, but that playing multiple sports makes you better at those sports. So, if I play football and basketball, playing basketball makes me a better football player. Talk to me a little bit more about that idea, and just this idea of a multi-sport athlete and where’s the value for you in having multi-sport athletes and where does the idea break down necessarily in that playing basketball makes me better at football.
Steve Bain: Wow, that’s a loaded question. I think it has a lot to do with just this general idea that pervades our thoughts as coaches and just the general public. That there’s just this idea that there’s such a thing as general movement patterns, or fundamental movement patterns. Whenever I think of that I just want to find out what they are. Because when you think about any functional goal, whether you’re a cheetah that’s trying to catch a gazelle, or Steph Curry trying to hit a three-point shot, or Russell Wilson throwing a football, each one of those functional goals is very, very different. And it’s possible to do studies and look at invariability from one skill to the next.
The idea being that when we see somebody throw a football or a baseball or a javelin, biomechanically, these things might look very similar. The movements might be very similar. But the functional goal is very different for each one of those things. The problem is that at the level of motor learning those biomechanical solutions, which might look similar, they’re as different as chalk and cheese. They’re just not the same.
Chris McGown: With respect to the way that they’re organized in your brain?
Steve Bain: Correct, yes. At a very fundamental level, all movements are specific in terms of the brain connections that they activate, the nerve pathways that they propagate, and at the end of the day, the muscles that they contract. It’s specific, and that has not been in dispute for nearly 100 years, even before Franklin Henry work had been done to describe the specificity of movement. Franklin Henry and his graduate students produced a large body of evidence demonstrating specificity, that this idea that it’s really not possible to talk about coordination. It’s not possible to talk about agility because in every case, they found that the coordination and the agility were specific to the task.
So, if you just go on, you can go Google and you can look at brain myths and many of these different things are going to pop up. But going back to Urban Meyer and his whole notion that he wants athletes that play more sports, there could very well be something to that from a psychological perspective, but from a motor learning, from what we understand about specificity of movement, there’s little or no transfer between the functional skills that are required to be a successful basketball player with those that are required to be a successful football player.
Chris McGown: I want to summarize it the way I understand it, and tell me if I’m right or if I’m wrong and help me here. So, if Urban Meyer wants great football players, the best possible solution or scenario for him would be to have kids that are playing football exclusively. And if I want a good volleyball player, the best scenario for skill development specific to volleyball, the best scenario for me to have an athlete who plays volleyball exclusively, that’s all she does; she spends the entire amount of her physical capacity playing volleyball. That’s going to create the most skilled and we can say the best volleyball player. Are you comfortable with me saying that?
Steve Bain: Yeah. I think that’s a fair thing to say. I don’t know how practical it is.
Chris McGown: Sure. So, I think what you touched on too is maybe for coaches like Urban Meyer and maybe if I’m a parent looking at this, the value in playing multiple sports isn’t that I develop strength systems or flexibility systems that are applicable over a wide variety of sports. You now, sprinting in football makes me more capable of sprinting in basketball, or something like that, that that’s not necessarily the case, that the best way to get strong at playing volleyball is to play volleyball, and the best way to get flexible at playing volleyball is to play volleyball. And the best way to get fit for playing volleyball is playing volleyball.
The trouble is, I think, in the practical sense, that kids burn out to some degree and lose interest in the sport, where it’s just, “Hey, I’m doing the same thing over and over again,” and that there’s some value as you talked about psychologically perhaps, in an athlete that gets to transition from sport to sport to sport and kind of look forward to, “Hey, I get to go to basketball practice now,” and, “Now I’ve got to go to football practice,” and, “Now I got to go to baseball practice.” For a girl, “Hey, I got to go to volleyball practice, and softball practice and golf practice,” whatever the case maybe. But the novelty keeps the sport fresh for them and keeps them interested and keeps maybe even to some degree some repetitive use kind of stuff maybe a little abbreviated.
But there isn’t necessarily skilled development value in me being a basketball player if I’m looking to create the best volleyball player.
Steve Bain: Correct. And you don’t find it in text books so much, but if you dive into the scientific literature, you can find studies that have attempted to address these questions.
Chris McGown: If you had to summarize the studies, what would you say?
Steve Bain: Well, I think the studies would say that… I’m thinking in particular of a guy named Paul Ford, and I think that he’s in the U.K, but he’s done a really nice job of looking at the sporting domain from this idea of long term athletic development and trying to understand what that really means. Long term athletic development, or LTAD, is really popular now at the national level as some sort of a prescription to develop high ability athletes. But it’s a popular notion, which really has no basis in research. There’s just not… it provide this physiologic perspective and it’s trying to optimize performance, but it’s just a theoretical model. In many ways, it’s just one dimensional, because, like I said, there isn’t any experimental data…
Chris McGown: Define that for me, long term athlete development. What’s the intent there, or what’s the notion behind that?
Steve Bain: Again, it goes back to this idea that there are fundamental movement patterns that we can develop in young kids, and that there are certain windows of opportunity where kids need to be trained in order to be really good at, say, basketball, or football, or what have you. And really what they have found, they studied soccer, a big surprise, they’ve studied soccer in the U.K., what they found is that in the younger kids what works best is early diversity. So, it’s organized play and practice, but it’s not something that we would call deliberate practice, which would… implies a much higher level of intensity.
What they found is that kids can have a primary sport when they’re younger and still be engaged in all of these other sports, and that will contribute to the development of expert performance in soccer. Does that make sense?
Chris McGown: Sure. Of course, what they want most over there is a bunch of expert soccer players, yeah.
Steve Bain: But he does a nice job, I know you know who Erik Eriksson is, and his work on deliberate practice, so Ford does a nice job of sort of incorporating Eriksson’s work into the studies that he has done and there’s quite a bit of debate out there right now in the scientific literature. And by debate I mean some degree of acrimony between the different groups in terms of this idea that 10,000 hours that has been popularized.
Chris McGown: Right, yeah. It’s been interesting to watch some of that and just the ideas behind shortcutting some of those 10,000 hours and how that works. Moving on a little bit, there are of course all these other notions out there that I think must, as someone with your background, drive you kind of crazy. It’s pervasive, and I don’t know where they start, but, let me list off a few of them for you. Hand-eye coordination, that person has great hand-eye coordination. If we can develop their hand-eye coordination through this, that that hand-eye coordination… you know, video games develops your hand-eye coordination. That’s my favorite one. So, talk to us about hand-eye coordination.
Steve Bain: Hand-eye coordination is specific to the task. Video games do develop hand-eye coordination for a particular video game. When I think of hand-eye coordination I think of perception-action coupling. Just this idea of what we see determines how you move, so if that’s true, if I’m doing a video game, then what I see in that video game is going to determine how I respond. But what I see in a video game, if it’s – I don’t do very many video games, you’d have to give me a name, but, let’s say it’s NASCAR racing or something, that is in no way going to improve my ability to hit a baseball.
Chris McGown: Or juggle, let’s say, juggling requires hand-eye coordination, right?
Steve Bain: Correct.
Chris McGown: So, not developing my juggling capabilities by playing Call of Duty is what you’re saying here.
Steve Bain: Yeah, correct. But what is true though is I, as a volleyball player can watch film of a volleyball match and we know that when we’re viewing that volleyball match, that it will stimulate the same areas in my brain that are responsible for executing these different skills. It’s one of the reasons why video feedback for our athletes is really good, because that video feedback activates the same brain centers that the skill activates. And it can be used as a very effective way for helping us to modify a movement.
Chris McGown: So you guys obviously use that quite a bit, and I don’t know the, I think I see the research kind of developing as we go along, but like you said, I’ve heard there is a very – and maybe it isn’t a one-to-one correlation, but watching something on video has a pretty good amount of transfer to doing the movement actually in real life.
Steve Bain: Yeah, I don’t have the numbers off the top of my head, but clearly, it does have a positive effect. But I would also say that it’s just… as teachers, what you want to do is organize the information content in the environment to optimize learning. And whether that is using verbal feedback or visual feedback or external focus of attention or whatever it might be, you have all of these different tools at your disposal when you’re working with the learner. And that’s, if I can say, that’s really where the art comes in as understanding how these different parameters interact through both, what we would call explicit , kind of cognitive pathways, versus implicit subconscious pathways, or sometimes that’s called analogy learning, is another phrase that’s often used.
Chris McGown: Another one that I hear a lot is muscle memory. What are we really talking about here?
Steve Bain: Obviously, muscles can’t remember anything. I can’t think of no other better example than the rapidly developing technology in the area of paraplegics, quadriplegics using their thoughts to control robots. So, the memory, if you will, for muscles resides in the synapsis in our brain. If muscles could remember then we wouldn’t need a brain, right? Clearly, when you separate the brain from your muscles, you sever the spinal cord or you have any kind of a paralysis, then movement is going to cease. But now we’re developing technologies where we can implant devices into the motor cortex and these devices can be trained to operate robots using our thoughts.
More recently, they have, if you will, for lack of a better term, essentially re-wired, using external wiring from a human subject to a paralyzed arm to operate the arm again to activate the muscles again. That technology is being developed very, very rapidly. But to me that’s the best sort of convincing idea that there’s really no such thing as muscle memory. Muscle memory is just this popularized notion that when you learn a skill you can perform that skill without thinking about it consciously. So, in a sense, there’s this…
Chris McGown: So, it’s basically just a motor program getting executed in this autonomous phase?
Steve Bain: Correct.
Chris McGown: So, a couple of others that you and I had come across, one surprised me actually, left-brain, right-brain, that that notion is, like we talked about, pervasive. You’re a left-brain thinker, you’re a right-brain thinker, you’re this and that, and you’re telling me that that isn’t necessarily the case either.
Steve Bain: No, it’s not the case. I think where that came from, I can’t remember that psychologist’s name, but the right-brain, left-brain hypothesis had its origin, I believe when back in the ‘70s, they were doing experiments on epileptics who had these very catastrophic seizures. And they found that they could separate the two sides of the brain and the seizures would stop. But when they did that they also noticed that the brain regions sub served different functions. For example, a patient could recognize a word but they couldn’t say it. And that’s because different sides of the brain control language and visual-spatial processing. Or this idea that one half of your brain is logic and the other part is creative. But Jeff Anderson, at the University of Utah actually, did some very elegant studies using MRI’s, using brain scans to look at the areas of the brain that were activated during these different activities, and basically demonstrated that we have a whole brain phenotype.
In other words, your left brain never operates independently of the right brain. The left brain isn’t stronger than the right brain. Your brain is a network, and in order for it to work properly, your whole brain has to be in operation. There just isn’t any sort of specialized lateralization of the brain. That’s a really good one, the left-brain, right-brain myth, you’ll come up with all sorts of different things.
Chris McGown: Haven’t they done research to show that if somehow the brain is divided, or the hypothalamus is severed or something to some degree, that now there’s some compensatory action where maybe speech was stored in this area, but that side of my brain can still learn to talk and learn speech and I can keep doing all these things that I used to be able to do even though there is a separation?
Steve Bain: Yes, very true. Not just stroke patients can recover because other regions of their brain can subsume functions that were lost because of a stroke. Your brain has tremendous powers of plasticity, so it can prune and reorganize the connections in order to sub serve the functions that are necessary for survival.
Chris McGown: Pretty fascinating stuff. So, if you had to summarize, “Hey, this is my life experience based on education, based on what I’ve seen as a coach,” and say, “Here’s maybe the top three things that I take away as a coach from the brain science that I’m familiar with,” what are your top three? I’m putting you on the spot here, I don’t think… maybe they’re five, maybe they’re two, but, if you had to say, “These are really, really important kind of principles and values that I’ve taken away from my experience,” what would you consider?
Steve Bain: I think the top of my list would be specificity and the importance that – you know, movement is essential for survival. In order to achieve functional goals, you have to be able to move. Those movements are task-specific. There’s just no way around it. I’m really off the deep end on that one. Anything related to movement is specific, and while there may be some transfer between, say, lifting weights and playing volleyball, that transfer is very small. In fact, lifting weights is a skill, just like spiking a volleyball is a skill. I just don’t think coaches understand that or appreciate the truth of that statement. I get in arguments at work all the time over that one.
And then I think another one would be variability. Just this idea that it’s the interactions between the performer, the athlete and the environment, the court, the field, the track, whatever, that’s what drives learning. Learning and synaptogenesis, changing the connections in our brain, those two things, they’re synonymous. So, you cannot separate the performer from the environment. They’re always going to be coupled to some degree. I guess you could say I take issue with this idea of a skill being closed. Sometimes we talk about free-throw shooting as being a closed skill or sometimes we think about serving as being a closed skill. I just don’t look at it that way, because at some level, the performer is going to be connected with that environment.
So, specificity, variability and I think for me, one of the things that I really value is autonomy. By that I simply mean structuring our learning environments – this could be a classroom, just as easily as it could be a court – but structuring our learning environments so that the learner can solve the problems. Giving them the tools that they need to identify the solution without us always getting in their way. Mayne John Kessel would call that guided discovery, I don’t know. But those things are really important to, at least from a motor learning sort of perspective, those things are really important to me.
Chris McGown: Well, hey, I can’t tell you how much we appreciate your time and for sure we got to keep having this conversation as time goes on, because there’s so many – for me anyway – really interesting things with respect to this topic. But, yeah, it’s great talking to you. What’s on deck for the rest of the summer?
Steve Bain: Well, the rest of the summer we’ve got our volleyball camps, I got to do some recruiting and your dad wants me to do a bunch of research on external focus of attention.
Chris McGown: That sounds about right.
Steve Bain: And tell him what it means. The more I look at external focus of attention, you can tell him the more confused I get.
Chris McGown: I think you’ve been a party to some of those back and forth with those emails and yeah, it’s getting to be little bit of a fun mess here.
Steve Bain: Yeah, that’s for sure.
Chris McGown: Hey, thanks again, and, yeah, I appreciate everything and it’s been wonderful seeing you this summer. Best of luck with the team.
Steve Bain: Thanks, take care.
Chris McGown: Talk to you soon.
Steve Bain: Bye.
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