Greenfield native examines neuroscience of athletics through new book

  • “The Performance Cortex” Contributed photo


  • WEISBLAT Recorder Staff/PAUL FRANZ

For the Recorder
Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Could athletic ability be as much a mental as a physical trait? This question is addressed in “The Performance Cortex,” a new book by sportswriter Zach Schonbrun.

Schonbrun was born and raised in Greenfield, and remembers being interested in sports from a very early age.

“I played Little League Baseball at Lunt Field,” he remembered. “My interest in sports mostly developed from playing wiffleball and touch football and basketball with my friends. Greenfield was the best place to be able to do that. I was never a great athlete, but I wanted to be around sports as much as I could.”

Schonbrun hoped to play professional baseball, but those hopes were dashed when he was cut from the varsity team at his high school.

“It was really devastating for me at the time,” he recalled. “Baseball was kind of my identity.”

With more time on his hands, though, he started writing for the school newspaper.

“I thought, ‘If I can’t play sports, this would be a really great way to stay connected with sports,’” he said. “I’m grateful today that I was cut from the team.”

Schonbrun, who now lives in New York City, honed his writing in college at Syracuse University and at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism. After a series of print internships, he established himself as a sports journalist, primarily for The New York Times. When I admitted to him that I seldom read the sports section of any paper, he laughed — and went on to stick up for his chosen profession.

He quoted legendary sportswriter Frank Deford, who used to say that when he told people at dinner parties that he was a sports writer, they concentrated on the first word and not the second. Like Deford, Schonbrun sees himself as a writer above all.

After five or six years of writing for the Times, Schonbrun started looking for a bigger project.

“I’d been looking for a story that I could sink my teeth into,” he said.

His wife spotted an article in the Columbia University alumni magazine about deCervo, a company started by two neuroscientists who wanted to apply their knowledge to baseball — and to market their results to Major League Baseball teams.

“This struck me as being really interesting and different,” he recalled. He met with the pair and wrote an article about them for the Times.

After the article was published, he said, the subject matter “was like a song that (he) couldn’t get unstuck out of (his) head.”

He began to talk to other neuroscientists and learn more about the field, particularly as it related to sports. Getting up to speed on neuroscience wasn’t easy, though.

“The last science course that I took was in high school, AP (Advanced Placement) bio,” he noted. “I think I got a B. It was a big learning curve for me.”

He purchased a giant tome called “Principles of Neuroscience” and acquired some basic vocabulary. Then he conducted interviews. In the end, he thought “going into the research with an open mind” was helpful.

“Because I didn’t have any biases into anything scientific,” he concluded, “I could approach my interviews with these researchers with a real curiosity.”

“The Performance Cortex” starts and ends with deCervo, using the company’s story to illustrate both the challenges and rewards of studying the neuroscience of athletics.

Along the way, Schonbrun profiles a number of neuroscientists in the past and present, and tries to present what is known about the relationship between the brain and movement.

Some sections of the book take a little twisting of the brain to comprehend, but the reader is buoyed by the fascinating nature of the subject matter (even to a non-sports-fan and non-scientist like me) and by the author’s passion.

I asked Zach Schonbrun what he wanted readers to take away from the book.

“A newfound appreciation and acknowledgement of the role of our brain in how we move,” he replied. “What the brain is able to do every millisecond.”

Part of Schonbrun’s message to the reader is up front in his book’s subtitle, “How Neuroscience is Redefining Athletic Genius.” He makes the case for viewing athletic prowess as a form of genius, a form as valid as artistic or mathematical genius.

“Why do we watch soccer?” he asked me rhetorically. “The World Cup is coming up in less than a month. A billion people are going to watch. If aliens came down from outer space, they might ask, ‘Why are so many people fascinated by this game?’

“For a billion people to be fascinated by a game like soccer, it has to have a degree of complexity ...

“It’s like going to a museum or listening to music. Appreciating the complexity. It has the same qualities. And yet we are much quicker to say that the musician or the architect is a genius because of what he or she is doing than the athlete.

“If you want to talk strictly from a cognitive point of view, the neural demands for a basketball player as he runs down the court, or a soccer player as he moves down the field, shouldn’t be considered less,” he continued.

“As we have learned to appreciate more and more what it means to move, it has been a bit unfair that we are not really considering athletes in the same way as some of the achievers in these other fields.”

After reading “The Performance Cortex” and talking to Zach Schonbrun, I am going to watch the next sports event I encounter on television with new insight. I may even start reading the sports section of the paper.