It’s not difficult to see how Stephen Curry led the Golden State Warriors to the second highest offensive efficiency in the NBA, trailing only the Los Angeles Clippers. With the ball in his hands, Curry made a strong case to become the league’s 2015 NBA MVP. But that’s not all.
Curry also contributed on the defensive side of the ball. He leads the league with 158 steals—a big part of why Golden State also boasts the top-ranked defensive efficiency. With Curry’s contribution on offense, the Warriors are a great team, but it’s his defensive contribution that propelled Golden State to the top of the highly competitive Western Conference.
A key to making a steal in basketball is that the defender must anticipate where the ball is headed before it gets there. He must anticipate this early enough to be able to beat the attacker to the ball and avoid committing a foul. This means Curry uses early cues to anticipate the movement and actions of opposing players. Superior anticipation skills such as his are an important component of the elite Athletic Brain. They take time to master, but new research shows that experience develops anticipation skill—and helps athletes’ brains develop an accurate and seemingly automatic response to early cues.
The Science of the Athletic Brain
Watching players develop in practice and games offers a subjective view of their learning curve, but what would put any doubt to rest would be to actually peer inside their brains to monitor their progress. That’s exactly what sports psychologist Dan Bishop did in his lab at the Centre for Sports Medicine and Human Performance at Brunel University London.
While lying in an fMRI machine that monitored their brain activity, 39 soccer players, ranging in skill from novice to semi-pro, watched film clips of attacking players coming directly at them. Sometimes the attackers would make dekes or jukes, then the clip would black out. The players had to choose which direction they would go to stop the ball carrier, based on the body language they had just seen.
“We have the skills and resources to witness very subtle changes in perceptual abilities that may not initially manifest in performance data, because people can change their mind midway through a task and therefore give an erroneous response, when in fact their initial ‘preattentive’ brain response was the correct one,” Bishop told CNN. “I imagine that this will be most useful at academy level, to assess the development of young players.”
As predicted, the experienced players correctly guessed the right direction significantly more than the novices. Their brain activity showed that their mirror neuron system was also active, which happens not only when someone makes an action, but also when watching another person execute a skill. In other words, our brain will “mirror” the actions of another as though we were taking the action. By watching the attacker coming at them, the experienced players in the lab were able to anticipate the next movement of their opponent.
Tips for Developing Anticipation Skills
You can practice developing anticipation skills at any time—even while watching a game or practice—even if you’re not playing.
1. Identify your target: Identify the target whose movement you want to anticipate. This could be the ball or an opposing athlete.
2. Establish spatial awareness relative to your target: Be aware of where your target is relative to where you are positioned and where you are moving to.
3. Identify likely movements: Quickly think of what movements are most likely in the situation and by this player. For example if it’s a penetrating point guard at the top of the key, the movement might likely be a drive to your right or left.
4. Look for the earliest “committed” movement cue: Watch for the instant the target commits to his move and respond immediately to the target’s direction (if watching, imagine proper response.)
5. Visualize: Immediately after the play, visualize the movements and cues that just took place (which takes just a few seconds) and what the final committed movement was. You will store this information in your brain and continue to build experience each time you do it.