In a recent ESPN piece, Brandon Weems, LeBron James' childhood friend, related the following anecdote to Brian Windhorst: "When you play Madden with him now you have to be careful which teams you take, because he will know what your game plans were in the past when you've played with him and he'll pick the opposing team knowing what plays you want to run."
The King's basketball memory is perhaps even more impressive. Again, from Windhorst's piece:
I mean — what? I can't even remember what I had for breakfast, much less a shot I took in a pickup game five years ago. (In my defense, I probably missed, which makes it a bit less memorable.) James, however, is not alone. If you read enough about sports, specifically the best professional athletes, you invariably run across stories about their ability to recall moments from games long over. Baseball players can remember pitch sequences, golfers instantly recall seven irons hit to three feet on the eighth hole of TPC Whatever, skiers know the unseen bumps of the Alps.
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So do elite athletes have superior memories to the rest of us? Actually, yes — according to Dr. K. Anders Ericsson, professor of psychology at Florida State University.
"The better memory representation is assumed to be critical to the ability of the player to make anticipations and get immediate feedback on the accuracy to keep refining the anticipations," Ericsson wrote in an email. "To be able to learn, one needs to be able to have a good memory for what actually happened in the game, so one can think about situations after the game is over and design practice to help improve weaknesses." Being able to remember past situations, then, can help improve future performance.
If that's the case, would it make sense for athletes to focus on improving their memory? In the world of the NBA or the NFL or whatever sport you choose, a tiny line separates the winner from the losers. Athletes (and their trainers) are experts at building muscle mass and improving physical performance, so much so that the margins are tiny. I wondered if it might be possible that spending time improving memory would have larger benefits on performance because it would be easier to do.
As it turns out, it does not. "Our best understanding is that improved memory does not necessarily improve performance," Ericsson says.
LeBron James is a basketball virtuoso, talent that extends from his humongous feet all the way up to his once-in-a-generation memory. He was probably just born that way.
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