Mental Representations

I just read a great New Yorker piece on Tony Romo’s talent as a color commentator.  It’s well worth your time.  The in-depth look at Romo’s ability to predict what’s next in a game reminds me of the great insight in the book Peak by Anders Ericcson about the importance of mental representations in athletic excellence.

From the New Yorker:

Romo, though, learned to make sense of such disorder while riding the bench for three years. By the time he became a starter, he was one of the league’s best passers. He prepared diligently and thought quickly; very rarely was he liverwurst on rye. In the course of his career, he watched hundreds of plays from the bench, lived through thousands more on the field, and then relived them many times over in the film room—perfect training for a commentator.

And here is what Ericcson says about mental representations;

Through years of practice, they develop highly complex and sophisticated representations of the various situations they are likely to encounter in their fields—such as the vast number of arrangements of chess pieces that can appear during games. These representations allow them to make faster, more accurate decisions and respond more quickly and effectively in a given situation.

These mental representations from years of experience allow Romo to predict what will come next.

Despite the first word in the term “mental representation,” pure mental analysis is not nearly enough. We can only form effective mental representations when we try to reproduce what the expert performer can do, fail, figure out why we failed, try again, and repeat—over and over again. Successful mental representations are inextricably tied to actions, not just thoughts, and it is the extended practice aimed at reproducing the original product that will produce the mental representations we seek.

Why Tony Romo is a genius

The New York Times weighs in as well.

I mean his content. He played football recently and has studied it closely, so he understands what the athletes are thinking, what the coaches are plotting, what makes sense on third down and what doesn’t. He uses the days between the games that he’s announcing to bone up on the teams that will come under his gaze, even interviewing their members. While he comes by his charisma naturally, he makes it a point to be informed.