Improving Athletic Skill Is All About Timing

By Dan Peterson, TeamSnap's Sports Science Expert


Timing is everything, especially in sports.  Swinging a golf club, hitting a baseball, or even kicking a soccer ball all involve our brain’s ability to integrate space and time. Coordinating the perfect sequence of muscles and limbs, not to mention other objects like clubs and bats, while the body itself is in motion requires a well-trained combination of vision, motor skill and an internal clock that synchronizes the entire process. For music students learning to match their finger movements with the beat of the song, a metronome is a critical training tool. Now, some creative sports trainers are using the metronome concept to improve the neuromuscular connection of athletes.

Synchronized metronome training (SMT) has been used since the 1990s to help students with learning disabilities like ADHD, Dyslexia, Autism, Reading Disorders and other conditions. By recalibrating their brain’s internal timing, known as temporal processing, these students can improve their attention, focus and decision making. Exercises range from clapping to a beat heard through headphones to pressing buttons with hands or feet to match the rhythm of the tones.  

Marius Sommer, a psychology researcher at Umeå University in Sweden, was convinced that SMT could help athletes improve their sequencing of of movements. He gathered elite female soccer players and experienced male golfers to volunteer for an experiment to not only train and measure their performance with SMT but also observe what was happening in their brains through the use of functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scanning.

Using technology from Interactive Metronome, Sommer tested the golfers and soccer players prior to having them start a four week training regimen consisting of three 45-50 minute sessions per week. Each athlete wore headphones that would provide a timed beep while also wearing special gloves with sensors that were connected to the system. Their goal was to synchronize their hand clap to the beeps they heard. If they were slightly ahead or behind, (by more than 15 milliseconds), they would hear a low-pitch error tone in either their left or right ear, depending if they were ahead or behind the beat. After the four weeks of training, which included more than 27,000 repetitions, the athletes were tested again.

Beyond just simple handclaps, the system has been adapted by many coaches, trainers and athletes to include touching targets on a wall (goalkeeper training), touching footpads on the floor in a certain order (footwork training) and other more complicated movements all while keeping time with the metronome tones being heard.

For the 26 golfers tested by Sommer, half were given the SMT training and half were not as part of a control group. They were all tested on golf shot accuracy from a fairway to a pin before and after the experiment. Sommer found that the golfers who had timing training significantly improved their golf shot accuracy over the four weeks while the control group did not.

By capturing film and 3D kinematic movement analysis of their swings before and after the training, the SMT golfers were able to see real physical changes in their swing after the training sessions. 

“When we investigated how golfers performed their swing after timing training, we found clear differences in the relation between and within the arms’ joint moment and the golf club’s movement,” said Sommer. “This indicates an improved capability for motor planning and coordination.”

For the 25 elite soccer players, the experiment was similar only this time they were tested on a cross-pass exercise. After a ball was passed to them, they had to one-touch the ball at a 90 degree angle towards a target zone 20 yards away. All the players were tested before splitting into two groups, an SMT training group and a control group.

Undergoing timing training three times a week for four weeks, the players used a series of footpad touch exercises to coordinate the movement of their feet with the metronome sounds they heard. Similar to the golfers, there was significant improvement not only with the performance on the SMT tests but also in the post-training cross-pass drill.

Sommer added an interesting twist for the women’s soccer group. Using fMRI, he captured their brain activity, before and after the training sessions, while they watched others perform a soccer specific task. Research has shown that watching someone else perform a motor skill activates the same areas of our brains as if we were doing the movement ourselves.  

"Studies show that the brain's activation patterns in areas considered to be of importance in order to understand, imitate and predict the movements of others (so-called mirror neuron system) are basically the same when we see a specific motor task performed and when we perform the same task ourselves," said Sommer.

The brain activity of the SMT group decreased after training, leading Sommer to conclude that the players’ brains had become more efficient as their temporal synchronization improved. Even though the training was not sport-specific, the underlying brain processes related to rhythm and movement seemed to help a variety of athletic movements.

A full text copy of the research can be found online.

Sommer believes this is only the beginning for SMT and sees many applications across sports, "The results are particularly exciting because both practitioners and coaches in most sports emphasise the importance of 'timing,' yet there are few previous scholarly studies on the relationship between motor timing and athletic performance.”

Release Date: Aug 11 2016

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