Cell Phones and Divided Attention

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The saturation of cell phones, E-mails and texting, combined with the availability of wireless in classrooms, offices, board rooms, meeting rooms and even baseball clubhouses has produced something called the problem of divided attention.

To illustrate how this problem can affect productivity and performance, researchers at
Harvard University gave students a mental task to perform. When the students had been working on the task for about 30 minutes, the researchers sent them an E-mail or text message and asked them to respond. After the students had responded, the researchers measured how long (minutes) it took them to re-focus on the task that they had been working on. It took the students more than 15 minutes to re- focus on the task they had been performing before the interruption.

Other research has shown that when people attempt to perform two tasks at once (e.g., following what’s happening in class while checking text messages), the brain literally can’t do it. The brain has got to give up on one of the tasks in order to effectively accomplish the other. Hidden behind all the hype about multi-tasking, is the sad truth that it makes you slower and dumber!

How does this apply to professional baseball? A year or so ago, the Astros had a veteran player with over 10 years of Major League experience who tended to text right up to game time. At the All-Star break, he was hitting .177 (14 for 79) for his first at bat of the game. When his first at bats were compared to those of other MLB players who hit in the same position in the batting order, he was dead last in both average and hits. When his first at bats were compared to those in previous years, he was at least 100 points below his lifetime (pre-texting) first at bat average. After reviewing the facts, he volunteered to turn off his cell phone and participate in a simple, 10-15minute pre-game preparation program.

The program consisted of 6-7 relatively simple muscle activation exercises that simulated some of the movements performed in game situations. Workouts were performed in the weight room at home and in the visiting weight room, batting cage or tunnel on the road. He did 5-10 reps of each exercise starting with hurdle overs and at home and a jump rope stretched between two structures on the road. Next came inclined push-ups on a Smith Machine bar or bench followed by inclined body weight rows on a Smith Machine bar or horizontal tubing rows. Pushing and pulling movements were followed by low-box step downs in which the player stood on a 6-inch box or step with his bat in hand and executed a series of one-leg eccentric / concentric step downs while keeping his weight on his back foot and maintaining a balanced hitting posture. Step-downs were followed by a series of 6-pound MD ball exercises that included MD ball squats, MD ball alternate lunges, partner assisted MD ball shuffle passes (similar to a basketball drill), MD ball slams and MD ball rainbow slams. The program ended with 4-5 quick foot / coordination drills on an 8-foot ladder.

Did it work? Yes and the results were significantly better than expected. He went 25 for 55 (.455) in his first at bat for the second half of the season and was hitting over .400 in his first at bat the next season prior to being traded. Why? First, the muscle activation program increased his body temperature and helped prepare his body and mind for the activity to follow. And second, turning off his cell phone allowed him to focus on baseball, not the last text message that he received.

Recommendations. First, players should be required or at least encouraged to turn off their cellphones or set them on silent mode when they come to the ballpark. Every player should be a good teammate. A ringing cellphone is distracting and can interrupt both the player’s and his teammate’s concentration and focus. Players should also be encouraged to avoid reading and sending E-mails and texting at least 30 minutes before practice and games. While the above example is on a population of one, the results indicate that divided attention can significantly interfere with focus, preparation and performance even in a veteran player.
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Gene Coleman, Ed. D., RSCC-E, FACSM, was the Head S&C Coach for the Houston Astros from 1978-2012 and is currently a strength and conditioning consultant for the Texas Rangers and Professor in the Exercise and Health Sciences Program at the University of Houston – Clear Lake.

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