I had an amazing game that day. Truly amazing when you consider the secret I carried onto the court.
I was tall for an 8th grader at six foot. But six foot is short by basketball standards. My parochial grade school team, the Epiphany Crusaders, were playing the best team in our league, St. Gabriel’s, at their gym.
Somehow, I scored 32 points—24 from the floor. I had numerous offensive and defensive rebounds and several assists. Even though I played center, my teammates passed me the ball for the final shot of the first half, and I hit it from well above the key. We won by at least eight points. I don’t remember the final score, but it was the highest scoring game of my life to that point.
I was simply on fire. In more ways than one.
When I woke up that Sunday, I knew I was sick. Every joint ached. My room looked like a scalding hot road on a blistering day in the desert. When I changed my focus, I got confused.
Had I told my mom, I would have been sent back to bed. Not a chance I’d miss this game, so I avoided the parents as much as possible.
I stealthily took my temperature after putting on my uniform and warm-up suit. One hundred one point seven.
As I said, I was on fire.
Aside from the (would be) 3-pointer at the buzzer, I remember only sketches of that day. I never broke a sweat, miserbly cold the entire game. I wasn’t tired, exactly, but I felt physically weak. Yet everything went right for me from the opening tip to the final buzzer.
Oh, one thing I do remember, if you can call it that: my mind was blank. I didn’t think about anything. I simply reacted. I was on autopilot, as if Dr. J had possessed my body and taken my brain along for the ride.
When my coach and parents realized how sick I was (I told them immediately after the game), they were shocked—not by my confession, but by my performance.
Had they known then what Dr. John Milton and colleagues at the University of Chicago know now, they wouldn’t have been surprised. Sometimes, we perform best when we don’t think.
E. Paul Zehr, PhD, of Psychology Today wrote about the study last week. Dr. Zehr reports that in a recent study using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), Dr. Milton’s team compared brain activity between two sets of athletes: LPGA experts and golf novices. The golfers were instructed to imagine their pre-shot routine before a shot requiring exact location.
Both groups showed activity in the parts of the motor control parts of the brain, just as if the golfers were actually playing golf.
The difference between the pros and the novices came in other parts of the brain. And the differences were stark.
In short, the novices’ brains lit up in thought and worry, while the pros’ brains remained dark and focused on motor control. Here’s why that matters:
Increased activity in different brain areas means a greater chance of error and interference. These additional areas can include the basal ganglia and cerebellum, areas that help interpret feedback and regulate and control movement, particularly during learning. The upshot (no pun intended) is that movement performance can actually be degraded. When it comes to brain activity, more is less (if you're a novice) and less is more (if you're a pro).
Nineteen years after my 32-point explosion against St. Gabriel’s, Michael Jordan delivered a legendary performance in an NBA playoff against the Jazz. “The Flu Game,” as it’s now known. Nauseated and feverish with the flu, Jordan played almost the entire game, scoring 38 points, and pulling his Bulls back from the brink with can’t-miss accuracy in the final minutes.
After Jordan’s performance, teammate Scottie Pippen said, “He’s the greatest, and everyone saw why tonight.”
Or maybe what makes Jordan the greatest basketball player of all time was his performance when he was completely healthy.