We know that England lost to Uruguay last night, but not all is lost and we might still have a chance. We hate to say ‘I told you so’, but if England players had read The New IQ we may be in a different position right now. Here, 4th Estate looks at how sporting performance can be improved by exercising your ‘working memory’, your ability to work with information. Have you ever found yourself with the ball in an intense soccer game and flubbed the shot on goal? Or wanted to make a great golf shot to impress the group you’re playing with and then hit the ball right into the trees? You aren’t alone. Even professional athletes who earn millions can choke under pressure. Who can forget England goalkeeper Robert Green’s agonising (and failed) attempt to grasp the ball after fumbling a routine save in the 2010 World Cup? Or Rory McIlroy, one of golf’s emerging superstars, wasting a seemingly untouchable four-shot lead going into the final round at the 2011 U.S. Masters in Augusta, only to wind up ten strokes behind the eventual winner? Anyone who’s played a sport knows about choking, but what you may not know is that working memory has a great deal to do with it. Tracy and Ross Alloway – the authors of The New IQ – offer a few tips for all you coaches, instructors and parents so you can improve your teaching techniques and get the most out of your players. And England, perhaps there’s still time… [Before you get started, a bit of jargon-busting: the ‘C-MC loop’ below refers to the cerebellum-motor cortex loop, which, when activated, effectively turn working memory into a benchwarmer and work as a finely tuned duo, and there’s no conscious thinking involved. You just perform, seemingly effortlessly. This is being ‘in the zone’.] 1. Learn from the Best Your cerebellum can be filled with all the right moves, or all the mediocre moves. Whatever moves you learn in the beginning are the ones that you will have in your arsenal when you are competing, so choose an instructor with a proven record of teaching perfect technique. Quick tip for coaches: Choose the best copycats. If you are deciding who makes the cut, prioritise athletes who can pick up and mimic a skill quickly, not necessarily those with the most game experience. 2. Opt for One-on-One Lessons If you are learning a sport for the first time, stay away from group lessons and spring for one-on-one private sessions. They may be more expensive at the outset but could end up costing you less – in terms of both money and frustration – in the long run. Private lessons ensure that you get the instructor’s full attention, which will help you learn new skills faster and more correctly, so you may need fewer lessons overall. Quick tip for coaches: If a player isn’t performing on the field, it may be because he or she never learned the skills properly. Help the player out with a one-on-one session where you break down his or her performance and show this person how to execute movements correctly. 3. Zip the Lip and Focus On the Feel When you are learning a new skill, seek out coaches who don’t give a lot of instructions and aren’t overly chatty. Too much talking means too much working memory, which gets in the way of the C-MC loop. The best coaches help you get the feel for the motion and know when to shut up. One of the best things you can do is to stop asking questions and just try to copy the form you are being taught. Questions mean working memory. Copying means feeling. Quick tip for coaches: Learn to shut up. Imagine how you would teach a skill if you had tape over your mouth. Then give it a try. 4. Take Advantage of the Fatigue Factor Fatigue is a great way to lock down working memory. Being too tired to think makes it much easier for your cerebellum to absorb the feeling of athletic movements. The next time you want to learn how to swing a golf club, don’t head straight for the driving range. First, go for a run, do push-ups, or do jumping jacks until you feel fatigued. Quick tip for coaches: If you are teaching a new skill, allocate more time to ‘warm up’ that day than you usually do so you can pre-fatigue players. 5. Break It Down, Drill It, Then Put It Together Every movement in sports – from an ollie in skateboarding to a forehand in tennis, a spike in volleyball, a jump, or a sprint – is made up of multiple submovements, and the whole movement can be ruined by getting just one of those parts wrong. Drill each submovement separately to lock it into the C-MC loop. Then when you link the moves together, it will flow more automatically without having to think about it. Quick tip for coaches: Understand that drilling submovements can be very boring for the person who’s learning. If you’re working on sub-movements one day, be sure to add a little fun to your sessions in other ways. 6. Turn On Working Memory When You Need It After the C-MC loop has established how to perform the movements correctly and automatically, it is time to reintroduce working memory into your activities. We recommend doing this in two stages. Be sure to master the stage 1 exercises before trying stage 2. Stage 1: Do the following simple tasks, which require you to use working memory during your practice sessions. Then when it’s time for the big match, your working memory will be free to strategise, counter your opponent’s moves, or deal with high-pressure situations. • While practicing, count backward from 1,000 by threes: 1,000, 997, 994, 991… • While practicing, say the alphabet backward: z, y, x… Stage 2: Replay a movement or a series of moves in your head that are different from the movement or moves you are performing at the moment. For example, if you are playing basketball and doing a pick and roll, think about taking a fading jump shot. If you are playing golf, imagine the perfect drive as you are putting. This is tremendously demanding and is almost guaranteed to mess up your performance at first, so don’t try it on game day. Save it for practice. Once you get the hang of it, you will be able to better use your working memory to think outside the box and be more creative. Quick tip for coaches: Play the opposite game. Stage One: Drill your players repeatedly in a particular movement, say jumping or sprinting. As they are doing the movement, shout out the name of the movement. For example, ‘Jump!’ or ‘Sprint’. This primes them to carry out the movement every time you shout its name. Stage Two: Now ask them to do a different movement like a push-up when you shout ‘Jump’. This will force them to use their working memory to inhibit a trained response and carry out the push-up. Stage Three: Add more and more movements with contradictory instructions. ‘Jump’ = push-up, ‘Push-up’ = sprint, and so on. By using their working memory to carry out the action, they will be better prepared to use it during competition to come up with innovative solutions. 7. Lace Up Your Running Shoes (or Not) and Go for a Run Going for a run is a great way to give your working memory a workout. If you’d like to get the benefit of the extra processing demands that come with adjusting to the terrain beneath your feet, consider going barefoot. With training, it is possible to run on almost any terrain – even snow and ice. Ross used to be able to run just a mile a week until he took his shoes off and slowly worked up to a thirty-three-mile barefoot run in the Pentlands. Ready to give it a try? The web is full of sites with great advice on barefoot running, but here are a few tips to help you get started: • Start at home by walking around barefoot on your own floors. • Walk outside on the sidewalk, grass, and pavement. When you get your confidence up, break into a jog for a hundred feet or so. Add just a little more distance every time you try it. Always know your own limits, and if in any doubt, stop. • Whatever your goal, get there as gradually as you can. If you rush at all with barefoot running, you will get injured. If you take it slow, anything is possible. 8. How to Beat Germany (or Any Other Team) at Penalties So many fans have been crushed by the abject failure of their national teams in penalty shout-outs against Germany. Use the science of working memory to change their anguish into triumph. Kick not think: Thinking about how you will take the penalty when the moment arrives invites working memory into the CM-C loop and is guaranteed to trip you up. Exclude working memory by targeting a particular area of the goal in practise, until hitting that spot is like breathing. On match day, you will be able to hit your target without thinking. Kick and think: Pressure is inevitable during a shoot-out. Prepare your working memory to manage it by undertaking activities like mental math, or reciting the alphabet backward during penalty practise. This way you will become used to hitting the target while your working memory is engaged. Pressure familiarity: Now familiarise your working memory with managing the pressure. Dare teammates to speak the unspeakable things fans do when you make a mistake, to ding your shiny new Ferrari, or to tell you your team will be relegated if you miss. Get emotional (that’s the point), but control the emotion with your working memory and hit your target. Edited extract © Tracy and Ross Alloway 2013 Think you can improve your game by improving your working memory? The New IQ: Use Your Working Memory to Think Stronger, Smarter, Faster, published in paperback by 4th Estate on 17 July, will give you three tests to find out how good it really is – and over 50 targeted exercises so you can sharpen it … and your football skills.