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IWU Professor Studies Data, Psychology Link In Baseball

Cole Hamels pitching
Scott Kane
Chicago Cubs starting pitcher Cole Hamels delivers during the first inning of a baseball game against the St. Louis Cardinals, Saturday, Sept. 28, 2019, in St. Louis.

An Illinois Wesleyan University professor is studying brain waves in baseball players to see if their ability to focus can be measured and improved.

IWU psychology chair Jason Themanson will be presenting a report at a baseball analytics conference during spring training in Phoenix, Ariz., on March 13-15.

Jason Themanson
Credit Eric Stock / WGLT
Illinois Wesleyan University psychology chair Jason Themanson will present his study at the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR) Analytics conference in Phoenix, March 13-15.

“A lot of times in baseball people (say) ‘Pay attention, focus, learn from your mistakes,’ and there’s no real measure of it,” Themanson said. “By measuring neural activity, we can start to get a measure of those psychological processes, so players and coaches and teammates can learn more about what they go through.”

Themanson, who teaches a sports psychology class at IWU, said studying a player's brain activity could show how players may be struggling with mental fatigue or other psychological stresses.

“Maybe you can marry that drop in intentional focus with personal matters, injury, illness, other things going on, other pressures and other drains on mental capacity,” Themanson said. “You can take a step back, give someone a day off or something like that to avoid burnout, to avoid fatigue."

Fifteen college baseball players and 15 non-players took part in the study to establish a contrast.

Themanson said baseball executives have said at previous analytics conferences that the mind is the next frontier in baseball’s analytics revolution. In a sport which has tried to measure each and every attribute of every player to gain a competitive edge, it’s now trying to quantify what was long thought to be unmeasurable.

“They’ve moved on to study biomechanics, they measure performance, they have advances statistical analytics, but no one really measures and tries to apply the brain activity, what’s going on in the mental side of the game to performance,” he said. “This might be a way to quantify some of that language.”

Themanson added sports are late to the game in examining the brain for peak performance. He said air traffic controllers and driving simulators are among the vocations that use simulation training to measure one’s ability to focus or multitask.

Themanson’s article, "The Psychology of Walks and Singles," published in The Hardball Times, was one of five national finalists for the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR) Analytics Conference Research Awards in the Contemporary Baseball Analysis category.

FULL interview

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Eric Stock is the News Director at WGLT. You can contact Eric at ejstoc1@ilstu.edu.