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Original Issue

Your Brain on Playbooks

The neuroscience of bringing X's and O's to life

"It's about the size of a dictionary," former Michigan State wide receiver Bennie Fowler surmises. "Maybe a little bit thicker." In May, Fowler signed with the Broncos. His reward: a tome containing hundreds of plays that have multiple variations. Fowler is aware that command of the playbook is essential, but it's far from easy. "The real complexity comes from the fact that you have two decision-making systems at play when dealing with a playbook," says David Redish, Ph.D., a professor in the department of neuroscience at Minnesota. Here he explains how those systems work.


"This is the planning and imagination system. It's the one that's used for big decisions that you think a lot about, such as reading a playbook and thinking, What would I do if... ? Unfortunately this decision-making process is slow and takes a lot of mental effort, so it's not good for on-field decisions."


"This is not a decision-making system, but it provides the visual-spatial analysis the brain uses to figure out who's where and what they're doing. It's the part that has to recognize the categories that the procedural system can act on. It would recognize a defender's inside position, triggering a switch to an outside route."


"This is the fast 'categorize-and-act' system. It's located in a different part of the brain and based on different information processing than the deliberative system. It reacts to situations it recognizes from previous experience (practice!). It's the reactive system a receiver might rely on when adjusting a route mid-stride."


"As if all that isn't enough, the defense is trying to both stop and trick the offense. It's an arms race of perceptual skills. Players learn to recognize certain in-game situations—where the blitz will come from, etc. At the same time the other team is trying to make those situations unrecognizable." The upshot? Learning and executing a playbook is like "learning to play an instrument that's plotting against you," says Redish. Good luck, rookie.


Reported number of pages in Raiders assistant Al Saunders's playbook when he was the OC in D.C.


"Kick the ball through the uprights."

Michael Hunnicut

Oklahoma's senior kicker, who added his own directive after receiving a blank iPad when coaches handed out digital playbooks on July 30.