British Columbia·In Depth

Chasing the 'zone': UVic research reveals the sweet spot in a baseball batter's brain

When a baseball player walks up the the plate to bat their brainwaves can predict performance, according to a new University of Victoria study.

Coaches say: Don’t overthink it! just play! Calm down! Turns out they're right

Connor Irvine waits for the next pitch to be thrown at Lambrick Park in Victoria B.C. (Michael Mcarthur/CBC)

When a baseball player walks up to the plate to bat, their brainwaves can predict performance before they even swing, according to a new University of Victoria study.

A neuroscientist and a kinesiology student scrutinized 60 baseball players' brain activity minutes before they swung a bat and discovered something surprising.

The more the athlete concentrated, the worse they performed.

Brainwave activity can predict the how well a baseball batter is going to perform before the athlete even swings, according to a new study from the University of Victoria. (Michael Mcarthur/CBC)

"It's in line with the anecdotal stuff you always hear coaches say, 'don't over-think it, just play, calm down,'" said Olav Krigolson, a neuroscientist with the Centre for Biomedical Research and a former basketball coach.

He teamed up with a baseball-player-turned-scientist to study whether electrical activity in the brain can predict batting performance.

How it works

The research was done by fitting 15-to-19-year-old baseball players with headbands — portable electroencephalographic (EEG) devices designed by a Toronto company called Muse.

The headbands monitor brainwave frequency levels. The levels were recorded before each player batted.

Then, their performance was evaluated by certified coaches.

Kinesiology Masters student Anthony Pluta pitching for the Victoria Seals in 2010, years before he began to question whether brainwaves could predict batting performance. (Christian Stewart)

"The skill of hitting a thrown baseball is ... considered one of, if not the most difficult skill in any sport," said Anthony Pluta, 34, a 13-year professional baseball player propelled into science after a devastating injury made him rethink the dreams of Major League Baseball he'd had since childhood in Nevada.

He and Krigolson were "spitballing" when they began wondering if brain states might predict athletic performance. So, they designed a study by recording the frequency of the athlete's brainwave oscillation — or how much the waves move back and forth in a second — before they performed.

Brainwave frequency range is described in neuroscience from lowest to highest as: delta, theta, alpha, beta and gamma. In deep sleep, the brain often registers delta activity, while meditating monks register more gamma activity.

While neuroscientists are only beginning to discern what different brain states mean, beta brain activity is generally associated with cognition and concentration.

Although it seems counterintuitive, the UVic study showed that higher amounts of beta brain activity — or higher concentration — lowered performance, suggesting it's better to be relaxed before the swing, said Krigolson.

More study needed

Both scientists were surprised results were so definitive but note the theory needs more research than this initial study.

Connor Irvine swings at the ball after his brainwaves are recorded on a headband device at Lambrick Park in Victoria B.C. (Michael Macarthur/CBC)

To research, they chased down baseball players at batting practices all over Vancouver Island and the Lower Mainland.

Pluta hopes to find the funds to do a longer-term study that analyzes the data of a high-level team during a season of real games.

He's convinced the tool could help predict the best pinch hitter and help win games.

Experts see use

But even these initial results are promising, say longtime coaches.

John Haar, the son of a Nat Bailey Stadium groundskeeper, rose to fame as a Double-A level player, going on to coach the first Canadian team to baseball gold at the Olympics.

He knows about the athletic struggle to stay in the elusive mental "zone" players say can make the ball appear bigger and easier to hit.

"[A batter] will have a hot streak, then all of a sudden get cold and say, 'you know I just don't see the ball as clearly' as when they're hot.'"

He sees the brainwave research as a potentially useful tool for batters and coaches — with more study.

"It's got to be put to the test first, but I have no doubt the answers are in the cranium."

He's not sure, however, the research solves the real hurdle of how to get the player into the optimum mental state if their brainwaves show that they are not.

That, he says, will take more research.

A new tool for baseball players? (Left to right) Leo Jansch, Connor Irvine and Jayden Cull wear headbands that record their brain activity before they step up to bat. (Michael Macarthur/CBC)


Yvette Brend is a Vancouver journalist.