The Mind Matters In Warriors Success

By Adam Grossman

Last night’s victory over the Cleveland Cavaliers provided the Golden State Warriors its second title in three years and capped off one of the most dominant three-year runs by any team in NBA history. One of the reasons this historic stretch is so remarkable is that the Warriors lineup is relatively ordinary from a physical perspective. Of the team’s vaunted “Lineup of Death,” a group known for dominating the competition for long stretches at a time, only Kevin Durant has physical skills that would be considered extraordinary in the NBA. In fact, this lineup is one of the smallest units in stature that played a significant number of minutes throughout the season. For instance, Stephen Curry and Draymond Green were specifically not taken earlier in their respective NBA drafts because many teams believed their physical limitations would prohibit them from becoming star players.   

Rather than relying on physical ability, the Warriors have built their team around a motion based offense that hinges on players consistently making the decision that will maximize the team’s expected points for that particular possession. More specifically, the team’s players are asked to survey the court and make decisions quickly to generate open shots. It is the team’s mental strength, particularly focused on cognitive executive function, that enables the team to gain a competitive advantage. In fact, Curry has credited his “brain training” as one of the key factors of his on-court success.

Intelligence and decision-making testing have been a component of player evaluation for years. The most well-known example of this occurs prior to the NFL Draft when players take the Wonderlic Test. One of the more surprising findings is that Peyton Manning had a lower score than his brother Eli on the Wonderlic. One of the shortcomings of the Wonderlic, and other intelligence test such as IQ tests, is that they are testing a dependent variable. Essentially these tests measure if people have high levels of intelligence but not why and how they have these high levels of intelligence.

This is not the fault of the tests themselves. Until very recently, humans had very little understanding of how the brain works on a physiological level. At a basic level, the brain has cells called neurons that produce neurotransmitters that are sent across pathways to other neurons throughout the brain to stimulate activity. The stronger the pathways are, the more likely someone will learn a concept. The human mind does not need lines of code to work. It continually adapts as it learns by processing and adapting to new information on its own. Instead of cooking by following a recipe, the brain acts like a master chef that can make changes to a dish by tasting the dish as he / she cooks a meal.  

This makes the rise of machine learning in technology particularly interesting. In the past, computer programmers would have to write thousands of lines of code telling a computer exactly what to do and how to execute a particular.  If a line of code contained even the smallest of errors, then the machine would not be able to complete its task. By using neural networks, engineers are enabling machines to be more like master chefs rather than cooks that follow recipes.

However, that is essentially the limit of understanding of how the brain works. InPossessing Genius: The Bizarre Odyssey of Einstein's Brain many scientist examined Albert Einstein’s brain posthumously and had tremendous difficulty finding any structural differences between the famous scientist’s mind and the normal person’s mind. Similarly, it is very difficult to understand how a machine learning platform makes changes to its neural network to achieve a task of identifying a logo during games. Essentially, the only way to impact the internal neural network is to change the external training stimuli and data sets. We do not really know how and why a machine makes the adjustments in its internal nodes to more accurately classify objects or identify faces.

New scientific advances may finally shed more light on how the brain and intelligence work. Recently, researchers have found a mutation in a gene in mice that controls communication between neurons in the brain. This mutation makes these mice “savants of the rodent world” and gives them superior intellectual ability. Other scientists have found 40 genes linked to intelligence showing that some of “your smarts are in your DNA”. We are closer than ever to finding out what physiological elements can lead to intelligence. From a sports perspective, these insights can eventually help teams better determine which players have the cognitive skills to perform at the highest mental levels during games. Rather than being an anomaly, teams could identify and assemble players with cognitive gifts, similar to how the 2016-17 Warriors did.

Human beings have been able to leverage our brain power to achieve extraordinary accomplishments even if we do not exactly how the mind works. Imagine what we could achieve we actually knew how intelligence worked on a genetic or cellular level. Drafting and signing players for the next NBA champion would just be the start.