The Evolutionary Eyeball Test

Posted: April 16, 2013 in Random Thoughts
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Scouts often talk about guys in terms of the “eyeball test.” Basically, this is the scout’s overall impression of the player’s athleticism based on watching how he moves. Guys with smooth, powerful mechanics like Ken Griffey Jr. pass the eyeball test with flying colors, while guys with disjointed, weak mechanics fail it. But what’s behind this eyeball test? Everybody knows what to look for in an athlete, even if they can’t really explain it. You can just look at somebody and know if they’re a good athlete or not. I believe this can all be traced back to our days as cavemen. Hear me out.

Not this annoying butthole. Real cavemen.

Not this annoying butthole. Real cavemen.

Natural Selection

I’ve always found the concept of natural selection to be fascinating. The idea that species have been molded over time by whether or not certain variables are advantageous is a simple, yet brilliant one. If you’re not familiar with this concept, first of all shame on you, and second of all here’s how it works (basically):

Imagine there is a flock of birds that inhabit an area with 2 sources of food. One of which is a berry bush, and one of which is a plant that produces nuts with a hard shell. When the berry bush is producing fruit, all the birds have easy, direct access to food. However, when the berries are all eaten, or the bush stops producing fruit, the birds must then eat the nuts to survive. Among this group of birds, some will be stronger than others, and some will have larger beaks. The stronger birds with larger beaks will be able to crack the shell of the nuts and eat them, while the weaker birds with smaller beaks will not be able to do so. Since the birds with smaller beaks can’t eat, they die, which means they can’t reproduce. Meanwhile, the birds with the larger beaks are able to live longer and produce more offspring. And since beak size is a genetic trait, their offspring will tend to have larger beaks as well. In this way, birds with smaller beaks are weeded out over the course of several generations, and the average beak size of the flock of birds increases over time.

Toucan Sam would get alllll the lady birds in this scenario

Toucan Sam would get alllll the lady birds in this scenario

There’s a lot more to it than that, but for the purposes of this article that’s all you really need to know.

In addition to natural selection, sexual selection also plays a role in evolution. This form of selection is largely driven by the appearance of physical characteristics. Animals that exhibit markers of good health are more likely to produce offspring because they are perceived as “more fit” by members of the opposite sex, and therefore will get to procreate more. Fitness can be conveyed by anything from the brightness of a peacock’s plumage to the size of an elephant seal’s body. And over time, preferences for these “fit” traits become established within the species, and members of the species will automatically look for these traits when selecting mates.

In addition, members of the same sex will look at their rivals and decide whether or not it’s worthwhile to try to attack them. In nature, it’s common for males to fight over the right to be the alpha male within their group. But if one male decides that the other looks bigger, stronger, and faster, it will often forgo a fight. Animals are programmed to evaluate potential mates and potential enemies alike.

Believe it or not, it seems like humans work this way too.

Within our species, certain physical characteristics are generally perceived as “attractive.” It has been theorized that this is the result of biological imprints on our brains that are left over from a time when humans still needed to outrun predators in the jungle to stay alive. A symmetrical face indicates good genetic makeup which makes for healthier offspring. A large, muscular posterior indicates strength and running speed, which yields offspring that are stronger and faster. The list goes on and on.

So What?

Humans, like any other animal, are programmed to automatically evaluate potential mates and enemies based on these biological markers, and I think that we are also programmed to unconsciously evaluate movement. Just like there are attractive and unattractive physical features, there are also attractive and unattractive movements. This is why everybody who sees Ken Griffey Jr. hit a baseball describes his swing as “sweet” or “pretty” regardless of whether they know anything about swing mechanics. We’re just using leftover brain software from our caveman days.  Only nowadays, we’re using this ability to improve athletic performance, not evaluate our enemies’ ability to defend themselves in a fight.

Since I’ve started using more video analysis on pitchers, hitters, and runners, I’ve found that any time somebody is exhibiting poor mechanics, it pretty much jumps out at the viewer, whether they know what they’re looking for or not. I’ve spent a lot of time learning about biomechanics so I know what to look for and how to identify what’s wrong. The kids I train, for the most part, don’t really know what they’re looking for, but when they watch video of bad mechanics, they know they’re bad, though they’re not exactly sure why. The ability to move efficiently and powerfully seems like something that would be an evolutionary advantage, so maybe the reason why everyone can tell “bad” mechanics from “good” ones is because we’re just conditioned to evaluate movement to determine the evolutionary fitness of other people.

Take somebody who’s never seen golf before and show them videos of Tiger Woods’ swing compared to this guy:

I can guarantee the golf newbie can identify who has a “better” swing, even though they’ve never seen somebody play golf before. When you watch that golf swing, you’re subconsciously evaluating the movements happening. You’re not actively picking apart the components of his swing, you’re just judging his movement as a whole. There’s no smoothness there, no power. Therefore, it’s a bad swing. Watch two sprinters of differing ability run next to each other. If one of them has bad mechanics, you’ll notice it.

What’s The Point of This?

If you’re looking to get faster, throw harder, hit farther, or do whatever it is your sport requires, do yourself a favor and watch a video of yourself. Your brain knows the most efficient way to perform the movement, and if you’re doing something wrong, you’ll notice it. Use your brain’s innate ability to evaluate movement to your own benefit. You may not be able to break down exactly what’s wrong, but realizing that your form needs work is the first step towards fixing it. As I’ve mentioned before, most athletes don’t have the body awareness to notice when their mechanics are off. Seeing yourself on film removes the guesswork and lets you see exactly what you’re doing, and provides instant feedback.

As I mentioned before, if you fail the Eyeball Test, you’re behind the 8 ball when it comes to being scouted and recruited. To make yourself as attractive as possible to coaches and scouts, you need to look athletic.

At its core, the Eyeball Test is just an evolutionary leftover. Are you fit to survive in the sports world?

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