Free Throws, Pizza, Neuroplasticity

When I set out to get my 10,000 steps in, I wasn’t expecting to stumble on two real-life examples of neuroplasticity at work.

But on one on-again off-again rainy-sunny October day, the sunshine won out long enough for me to decide to stretch my planned 5,000-step walk into a 10,000-step walk to get my daily exercise in one go.

As I approached the point of no return, my stomach growled. I hadn’t fueled up for a 10,000-step trek. There were plenty of places I could stop for food, but I hadn’t planned to spend money. If I had greater self-control, I could have sucked it up and taught myself the importance of properly fueling up for my exercise routine and sticking to my plans. But, just as I was thinking that, I passed Via Chicago, a place I visit when I have a craving for the Chicago-style pizza of my youth. For four bucks, which my empty stomach argued was reasonable, I could take on enough fuel (more than enough) to get me home.

Via Chicago Pizza

Since it wasn’t raining, I decided to grab a slice to go. I had intended to walk through Alberta Park anyway. My only change of plan was to park on a bench long enough to fill my belly.

The place was deserted except for a couple of guys practicing free throws on the covered basketball court. I had played just enough basketball and watch just enough games to realize that the shooter was sinking an unusually high percentage.

Even the pros practice to keep their free throw shooting sharp. They do this because with each shot, the brain associates the cause (the muscular movement) with the effect (the ball going through the hoop or missing). They’re not practicing their shooting. They’re making free throws a habit so they can make them without thinking.

The fancy name for free throw practice or anything practice is neuroplasticity: the brain’s ability to reorganize itself by forming new neural connections. The muscular activity that propels the ball through the basket corresponds to an electrical pulse between specific neurons or nerve cells in the brain. Each time the muscular motion and neurological circuitry synch up with the intended result, a basket, the likelihood of that circuitry firing next time the shooter steps up to the line increases.

As I sat using my neuroplasticity to become more impulsive by rewarding my taste buds and tummy with a slice of yummy pizza, the shooter used his neuroplasticity to habituate his shooting skill. My habitually wandering mind moved on to other metaphors for the mental mapping process we were both practicing. Between the bench where I sat and the trash can by the court, many footsteps had worn a path through the grass: evidence that I wasn’t the first person to snack there. Neuroplasticity is why my high school band director admonished me not to practice my mistakes. The guy credited with engineering the mental wellness exercises that I practice every morning said something like “What we frequently think or ponder upon becomes the inclination of the mind.” It didn’t take neuroscientists to teach us that repetition leads to habituation. Their contribution was the discovery of how those habits form the brain itself.

When I finished my slice of pizza and approached the trash can to deposit the aluminum foil, I considered complimenting the shooter on his performance. But before I could, another “teachable moment” arose. As I entered his sight line, he missed a shot, then another, then another. Sinking a free throw when no one is looking is much easier than sinking one when the home crowd is watching and the outcome of the game is on the line.

I felt compassion for his plight. According to the article “The Science Behind Your Free Throws,” “The best way to prepare to make the big shot in crunch time is to learn to shoot and practice shooting under both pressure and adversity all the time. From now on, when practicing free throws, jack up the pressure and create high-tension scenarios.”

I guess the best way to stick to your exercise routine is to stick to your exercise routine. Don’t let the weather or a craving for pizza influence you. I took solace in the thought that at least the shooter and I both knew that we still had work to do.

Ten Minute Exercise
  1. Watch this brief YouTube video on neuroplasticity.
  2. Think of a habitual neural pathway you would like to re-route.
  3. Remember this video the next time your brain takes that path.

Author: Bruce Cantwell

Writer, journalist and long-time mindfulness practitioner.