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Human Performance, Performance | Oct 24, 2019
In this fourth instalment, the Platypus Institute discusses declarative and implicit memory and how neuroscience can optimize an athlete's cognitive workload.

An article brought to you in association with our Partners The Platypus Institute


The Platypus Institute is a pioneering leader in the field of maximizing elite-level sports performance based on neurocognitive assessments and has extensive experience working with coaches and athletes. For more information click here.


Study your playbook,” is the no-nonsense advice that Tom Brady – the quarterback with the most record-breaking wins in NFL history – gave to a seemingly distracted rookie player during an Instagram exchange at the start of the Patriots’ current season.

Learning a playbook and ‘making it stick’ is one of the most important (and daunting) challenges for NCAA Division 1 College level and professional football players. 

Rugby players understand the importance of the NFL playbook, too. Earlier this year – in an interview with the National Rugby League – Australia’s Jarryd Hayne (formerly of the Parramatta Eels) who played American football for the San Francisco 49ers, gave some advice to another rugby player turned NFL draftee, Jordan Mailata. 

“You can go into the NFL and understand a little bit of what you’re going to learn, but until you sit down in a room and see the playbook, the defensive schemes, it just blows your mind,” Hayne said. “I went in there with some idea, like ‘oh yeah, I kind of get it’ but not only do you have to learn all the schemes, you also change them every week. And it’s not one of those things where you get time to learn and change them; it’s like ‘BOOM we’re doing this now’ and you’re expected to know it.” 

The cognitive skills footballers use to make the playbook stick can be applied to any team sport that requires learning a specific sequence of plays that are part of strategic game plan where every player acts like a cog in a well-oiled machine. 

“From complex playbooks to weekly preparation for an opponent’s tendencies and formations, memory is key to success,” Tom Nugent of Platypus Neuro said in a recent interview. “Football has historically been known as a game of inches, with an emphasis on the physical. To be continually successful in today’s game, having the best physical game won’t be enough. To us at Platypus, it’s a game of mental milliseconds. Whoever remembers the fastest, correctly reacts to the play as it unfolds, and makes accurate decisions quickly, wins.

“Mental milliseconds are what separates the good from the great,” Nugent continues. “Lightning-fast processing speed is just one facet of how NeuroPerformance training is changing the competitive landscape in sport. At Platypus, we work with teams and players to help them access their internal database and recall information correctly, quickly and effortlessly.”

Elite quarterback coach Jordan Palmer – who is an eight-year NFL veteran – gained notoriety for his ability to master complex playbooks quickly. For example, when Palmer signed with the Tennessee Titans mid-season, he memorized their entire dictionary-length playbook in under three days. Now, he shares his expertise and unique playbook-learning methods as a coach for NFL quarterbacks. 

His first bit of advice for making the playbook stick is to avoid reading the playbook from front-to-back like a novel. “The Bible, cookbooks and a playbook are all the same,” Palmer says. “The reason I lump them together is because we don’t open those up and read them cover to cover. Most guys entering the league don’t understand that principle. They just open up their playbook from the beginning and try to start learning everything.”

When Palmer teaches his quarterback clients how-to learn a playbook, he breaks the process down into four sequential steps and categories: Formations, concepts, protections, and miscellaneous. He also makes a distinction between ‘knowing’ a playbook intellectually based on declarative knowledge and ‘owning’ the contents of a playbook as part of a non-thinking, automatic procedural memory system. 

Making the playbook stick requires two different memory systems. David Redish, a professor in the Department of Neuroscience at the University of Minnesota, explained how this works to Sports Illustrated

“The playbook is about memorizing a procedure, but specifically a description of a procedure. And so the challenge is that not only memorizing the playbook but having to translate that memorization into the action on the field. [This uses] two different brain systems. Essentially, memorization can only take a player so far during game situations. To truly thrive at the next level, one must be able to anticipate what the opposition is attempting to conceal and then make split-second adjustments.”

The declarative memory system relies on explicit knowledge that can be readily accessed, articulated, and could be answered on a written test. This is the cerebral ‘book’ part of the playbook. When memorizing a playbook, memorized pages of the book are typically stored in the hippocampus (memory hub) and the cerebral cortex (thinking cap).

However, there is another ‘implicit’ procedural memory system located in different parts of the brain (such as the cerebellum and basal ganglia) that integrates knowledge into automatic actions and facilitates split-second decision-making without overthinking. These brain areas integrate the action-based ‘play’ part of the playbook. 

The key to making the playbook stick lies in harmonizing both of these memory systems. Ideally, a player ‘knows’ the information and could sketch out a play on a napkin from memory if necessary; but the athlete also ‘owns’ the knowledge held in the playbook because it’s locked into an implicit and automatic procedural memory system that doesn’t rely on language or words.  

The Platypus Institute takes the ability of a player to ‘know’ and ‘own’ the playbook to the next level by optimizing a pro athlete’s attention and focus, working memory, and visual processing speed. All of the brain functions needed to make the playbook for any sport stick in an athlete’s mind can be monitored and optimized using Platypus technology.   

Optimizing the overall workload capacity of a player’s brain by prescribing proven neuroscience-based cognitive exercises that boost attention and focus, memory, and brain processing speeds help the playbook stick in an athlete’s mind. Freeing up an athlete’s cognitive workload facilitates tapping into natural instincts and prevents those ‘deer in headlights’ moments.

The Platypus Neuro ‘Cognitive Combine’ moves the stopwatch from the 40-yard dash to the speed of a player’s cognitive skills. This neuroscience-based approach provides Platypus clients with the next competitive edge.


For more on neuroscience, check out the first three articles in this series:

Headstart: Demonstrating the Value of Neurocognitive Assessments for Pro Athletes, Coaches & Scouts

Headstart: Why Athletes and Coaches Are Turning Toward Neuroscience

Headstart: Why Neuroscience Promises to Be a Game-Changer for Elite Sport

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