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  • Stanisław Romanowski

Inside The Brain of a Basketball Player

With two seconds left on the shot clock, a basketball player can make a split-second decision that changes the final score of the game. Have you ever wondered how such athletes are able to process information on the basketball court so fast? This is thanks to the motor skills that elite basketball players develop at the highest level allowing changes in the neuroplasticity of the brain to take place.

A sport such as basketball is extremely demanding, not only when it comes to the physical expenditure that the athletes experience, but it is also mentally exhausting. Although the majority of the brain is constantly at work during an intense basketball game, the main areas that are responsible for maintaining the highest levels of functioning are the forebrain as well as the midbrain. More specifically the amygdala, which is located in the frontal lobe of the brain and the cerebellum in the midbrain. Many components contribute to allowing an elite level player to maintain composure and make the adequate reads when it comes to the behaviour of their opponent's defensive system. Thus, it is essential for such players to adapt to the stressors and stimuli of the environment that they function in.

Having an emotional outburst or arguing with the referee about making a controversial call is an interaction that should be avoided at all costs during a game. This is because the player can receive a technical foul which can quickly escalate into the player getting ejected, weakening their team and decreasing the chances of winning. This is why the role of the amygdala is crucial when it comes to preventing such a situation from happening. The amygdala is a major component of the limbic system which is responsible for our emotional responses to a given stimuli. The mechanism for feeling anger can be compared to that of the flight or fight response which causes the hypothalamus to be triggered and indirectly releases hormones such as adrenaline into the bloodstream. This increases blood pressure in the blood vessels, increasing the speed at which the blood travels, thus improving circulation to the muscle cells that are necessary to react to a given stressor. Fear is not the factor responsible for the anger response caused during a basketball game but rather the frustration experienced by a player after numerous bad calls. As a result of this, elite athletes need to be able to control this intense anger. Such control is possible through dampening the activation of the amygdala which in turn inhibits the feeling of anger, preventing them from having an emotional outburst. Since basketball players compete anywhere from 1-4 times on a weekly basis, their ability to control their emotions is often greater than that of a non-competitive person.

Going for a walk in the park, running or even just stretching in the evening is something that we have all done in the past. When participating in these kinds of activities, did you ever have to think about performing such an action before doing it? We simply get up and start walking or stretching without having to think about controlling each muscle involved in the given exercise. Although it seems quite unimpressive, it is fascinating as you can perform a series of movements that require the cooperation of many muscles subconsciously. For such movement to be performed, the brain must first send an electrical impulse down the spinal cord and is relayed to the muscles responsible for that specific action. There are two types of movement: gross and fine. Gross movement is a type of movement that requires many muscles groups to work simultaneously and so requires more effort- examples of those include activities such as cycling or playing basketball. Whereas fine movement is a type of movement that requires utilizing the smaller muscle groups in the body - examples include writing or brushing your teeth. All these types of movements require motor skills which are developed in the brain in the form of motor memories.

Motor skills are functions that use specific movement patterns in order to perform a certain task such as shooting a ball into a hoop or dribbling a ball. Elite level athletes practise game-like shots as often as they can during practise until they cannot get it wrong, allowing that skill to be translated into a real game. The reason for doing this is to develop motor memories for that specific skill until it feels effortless. The phrase “his shot is automatic” is often used when describing high level shooters. It refers to a player repeating the same shot so many times, to the point that it is performed automatically without consciously thinking about the mechanics of that shot.

A study conducted in South Korea investigated the differences in white matter composition in the vermis lobules of the cerebellum using MRI scanning. They carried out MRI scans of 19 elite level male athletes from various South Korean universities as well as 20 healthy male participants who did not engage in any physical activity, using them as a control group. The results of the MRI showed a larger white matter volume in the vermis lobules of the basketball players in comparison to the control group. Basketball is a sport that requires complicated motor skills and so such athletes focus on developing them during their practises. Therefore, based on the results of the study it can be observed that long-term developments of motor skills cause neuroplasticity changes in the white matter of vermis lobules, which are essential to further develop and meet the demands of the sport.

The brain is absolutely crucial when it comes to being exposed to extremely dynamic and stressful environments such as playing a basketball game. It is responsible for many physical and emotional components that go into being a successful basketball player, yet we do not consciously think about all such factors, proving how amazing and powerful our brains are.


  • Park, I. S., Lee, Y. N., Kwon, S., Lee, N. J., & Rhyu, I. J. (2015, December 21). White matter plasticity in the cerebellum of elite basketball athletes. PubMed Central (PMC).

  • What Part of the Brain Controls Emotions? Fear, Happiness, Anger, Love. (n.d.). What Part of the Brain Controls Emotions? Fear, Happiness, Anger, Love.

  • How Do We Move? (2019, May 13). How Do We Move? | Wonderopolis.

  • Kim, J. H., Park, J. W., Tae, W. S., & Rhyu, I. J. (2022, March 10). Cerebral Cortex Changes in Basketball Players. PubMed Central (PMC).


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