Your Kid’s Not Going Pro

A Youth Sports Blog

How video games make your kid a better athlete

with 4 comments

Wired’s Chris Suellentrop is echoing the chorus that attributes the increasingly complex brand of football played at lower levels, and the strategies employed at the highest levels, on a generation’s worth of players growing up with the Madden video game, which premiered in 1989. After all, if pilots get better through flight simulators, and studies show that gamers make better surgeons, then it stands to reason that years of basement video-game playing could translate into real-life football, right?

Cognitive scientists have published a series of studies demonstrating that playing fast-paced action videogames — mostly first-person shooters like Call of Duty and Halo — can alter “some of the fundamental aspects of visual attention,” as a paper published in the July 2009 issue of Neuropsychologia put it. By training on these games, researchers found, nongamers can achieve faster reaction time, improved hand-eye coordination, and greatly increased ability to process multiple stimuli. Studies have demonstrated that military pilots and laparoscopic surgeons can improve their professional skills by playing videogames. It’s not much of a leap to think that athletes could, too.

There are limits to how much virtual training will be able to boost on-field performance, of course. Don’t expect football to follow on the heels of poker, a game in which Internet-trained players have upended the professional cartel. (Chris Moneymaker won’t be quarterbacking the Titans next year.) A better analogy for virtual training could be weight lifting: It’s an activity that won’t turn you into a professional athlete, but if you are one, it will make you better at your sport. And once everyone starts doing it, you’ll need to do it regularly to remain competitive.

Plus, you don’t need to inject steroids into your teammate’s ass to make them a better gamer.

I would say something smart-alecky about Suellentrop’s thesis… except that I agree with it. Suellentrop has plenty of supporters, including pro athletes, in his story. But I’ve seen it work in my own kids.

When my oldest son, now 12, first signed up for baseball, he didn’t know much about the rules of the game — but he learned them quickly, thanks to a preseason of playing Backyard Baseball. He’s not tall enough or strong enough to stand out playing basketball — he didn’t make his seventh-grade team. But I can’t help but think that his strongest suit — quick, thread-the-needle passing — is helped by his years of gaming. If he can figure out how to snake through a zombie-infested subway in Left 4 Dead while also being aware of his teammates’ position, it makes sense that he can make a quick decision with the ball when his teammates are surrounded.

Where I see games translating to real life the most is in my 7-year-old son’s bowling league. First, the whole reason he got interested in bowling is because of Wii Sports. But he, and his teammates, have learned to adjust their starting positions and throws because of Wii bowling. And then it circles back, with my son using real bowling to help position himself on Wii bowling. And then using what he learned from that applied back to Wii bowling.

So if your kids are spending a lot of time playing video games — don’t freak out!

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Written by rkcookjr

February 6, 2010 at 7:27 pm

4 Responses

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  1. It’s not a very big leap to envision professional sports teams building game simulators that import the tactics of upcoming opponents to give players practice making split-second decisions. This could be batting simulators mimicking the performance of actual pitchers, or something like Madden where you play your individual position and have to react to a developing play (in lieu of watching how a team plays on tape).

    Also related, there are pilot programs in the military to use videogames to treat PTSD. On the flip side, there’s one reported case of Call of Duty possibly triggering a PTSD episode.

    Zach Hensel

    February 6, 2010 at 7:50 pm

  2. I don’t watch football (or sports in general) at all. I’ve just recently gotten to where I could sorta explain the concept of a down. But that Wired article was riveting, even to a novice like me. That story about Stokley at the top is amazing, and as close to ironclad evidence that videogames are changing sports in a very real way. I’m glad you highlighted it. It needs to get around.

    Joseph Childers

    February 6, 2010 at 11:47 pm

  3. Heck, even the whole play itself was a crazy, Madden-type play. Kyle Orton blithely chucks the ball from his own 13 with no time left, it bangs off a couple people, and a receiver appears out of nowhere to catch it and run for a TD. That Stokeley made sure to burn off time before entering the end zone just made the Madden connection more obvious.

    Zach, the story mentions that there are sim programs that do what you describe, but that Madden, at only $60, is just as good. Over the years, they’ve definitely tightened things up so you don’t have as many easy plays, and that you really have to read defenses before you snap the ball.

    Bob Cook

    February 7, 2010 at 4:18 pm

  4. Probably true; admittedly the last time I played Madden I exclusively ran sweeps and cleaned up. Which was a step up above scoring a touchdown every time Walter Payton touched the ball in Tecmo Bowl.

    Zach Hensel

    February 7, 2010 at 4:29 pm


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