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Book Review: Blink by Malcolm Gladwell

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Book Review: Blink, by Malcolm Gladwell

I just finished reading Blink by Malcolm Gladwell, and if you haven't read it yet, I recommend it.  Gladwell explores the human mind's ability to make snap judgements and the human body's ability to act on those judgements.  As I am wont to do, I thought about how this might relate to baseball.

One of the anecdotes in the book is about a tennis professional named  Vic Braden.  Braden finds he has the extraordinary ability to predict when a player is going to double-fault.  Try as he might, he is unable to pinpoint what physical clues tip him off, but his ability to predict the double fault borders on the unnatural.  Something in Braden's unconscious is triggered and - blink - he knows a double fault is about to occur.  He doesn't know how he knows - he just knows.  Regular people like you and me have this ability to make snap judgements as well, and we use it a lot to judge character and emotion.  But when asked to justify the basis on which we make these decisions, we often give incorrect explanations and, worse, lose our snap judgement ability.

Have you ever heard a baseball players explain what was going through his head during a crucial at-bat?  After reading Blink, I wonder if a lot postgame interviews are subconcious fabrications.  If Gladwell is correct, asking players to explain their thought process in a game-situation is likely to result in, well, a bullshit explanation. Per Gladwell's hypothesis, a player's subconscious reacts to the necessary information and doesn't let the conscious mind worry it with details about wind speed, weather, contract negotiations, even pain.  The conscious mind probably doesn't even process most details regarding the release point, arm slot, pitch speed, etc.  It is instinct - built up over years and years of playing baseball - that made a snap judgement and said "Fastball, middle in, swing, hands in" and BOOM!  

The ability to make quick decisions is also at the heart of one of the long-standing questions of performance analysts:  Do clutch hitters exist?  I guess no; you're free to disagree.  Gladwell cites studies that show that human beings become desensitized to stressful situations upon repeated exposures - sometimes as few as four or five exposures for soldiers acclimating to the battlefield.  While not exactly the sand dunes of Iraq, let's face it, playing professional baseball at the highest level is stressful.  Heart rates rise dramatically in these situations, people "freeze," and are unable to fall back on their snap judgements, their unconscious ability.  Desensizitation to stress allows someone to blink and let their instincts take over.  In Major League Baseball, I think that baseball players are so desensitized to stress after rising through high school, college, the minor leagues that they play almost entirely on instinct.  

And what if a player begins to think consciously about his actions when making quick decisions?  As Gladwell found, the ability to make snap judgements is often damaged when the conscious mind interferes.  I believe this is the root of the athletic malady known as the "yips" - the inability to perform "simple" tasks.  The yips ended the careers of Steve Blass and Chuck Knoblauch.  Blink provides some insight as to how and why the unconscious mind acts on the baseball field.  Sports psychology is an area that has a lot of room to grow and can use its own Will Carroll in due time.  Whatever you think about Alex Rodriguez, give him credit for being proactive about seeing a therapist when he moved to New York.  I think that pre-emptive psychology, like pre-emptive medicine, will become increasing important.  Athletes train so that they don't get injured.  Taking care of one's mental well-being might be a way to avoid the mental meltdowns that made punchlines out of Blass and Knoblauch.  What was the role of psychology in the demises of John Rocker, Billy Koch, Rick Ankiel, and - what the heck - Mark Mulder, late 2004?

Blink has some lessons for baseball fans, but, as the great Levar Burton would say, "Don't take my word for it." Pick up a copy from the library for yourself.