when there is no time to think

Jonah Lehrer writes about what it takes to be a quarterback (here).

First, it is not easy:

The ball is snapped. The quarterback drops back, immediately surrounded by a chorus of grunts and groans, the sounds of linemen colliding. The play has just begun, but the pocket is already collapsing around him. He must focus his eyes downfield on his receivers and know where they’re going while also reading the defense. Is that cornerback blitzing or dropping back? When will the safety leave the middle? The QB has fewer than three seconds to make sense of this mess. If he hesitates, even for a split second, he’ll get sacked. No other team sport is so dependent on the judgment of a single player…

Teams use tests of cognitive skill (Wonderlic) to judge potential quarterbacks, but many of the most successful had low scores on the tests. The wrong thing is being measured. There isn’t time in the pocket to use the type of cognition that Wonderlic measures.

So how, then, do they make their decisions? Turns out, every pass play is a pure demonstration of human feeling. Scientists have in recent years discovered that emotions, which are often dismissed as primitive and unreliable, can in fact reflect a vast amount of information processing. In many instances, our feelings are capable of responding to things we’re not even aware of, noticing details we don’t register on a conscious level. … “QBs are tested on every single pass play,” Hasselbeck says. “To be good at the position, you’ve got to know the answer before you even understand the question. You’ve got to be able to glance at a defense and recognize what’s going on. And you’ve got to be able to do that when the left tackle gets beat and you’re running away from a big lineman. That ability might not depend on real IQ, but it sure takes a lot of football IQ.”

And getting this football expertise:

“There is virtually no evidence that expertise is due to genetic or innate factors,” Ericsson says. “Rather, it strongly suggests that expertise requires huge amounts of effort and practice.” This is because it takes time to train our feelings, to embed those useful patterns into the brain. Before a quarterback can find the open man, parsing the defense in a glance, he must spend years studying cornerbacks and crossing routes. It looks easy only because he’s worked so hard.

What it takes to do anything complex really well is disciplined practice on very specific skills for enormous amounts of time – diligence, grit, dedication. This appears to be true of any athletic sport and any performance art.

What does all that practice do? I believe that one thing is that it eliminates the need for any conscious activity. Thought that has to pass stepwise through consciousness and working memory is slow and limited. Thought that results from having made all the necessary connections automatic is fast, smooth and accurate. Hours of practice is how this transfer is achieved.

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