Nerd vs Jock

author - melissa witmer

What’s the difference between a nerd and a jock?

Admittedly, these terms are not mutually exclusive.  In stereotypical usage, a nerd is someone who is good at academic subjects, especially math and science.  They are supposedly not very adept at throwing footballs.  A jock is a kid with an abundance of physical skills.  Jocks are often portrayed as thugs who are not too bright.  Stereotypes are limiting of course, but it is helpful to think of the gifts of nerds and jocks as separate types of intelligence. Being a nerd does not mean you can’t be a jock.  Being a jock does not mean you can’t do well in school. What is true is that much of academic learning (the type in which nerds excel) requires a different area of the brain and uses different techniques than motor skills learning (what jocks are good at).

For people who are academically inclined in math and science, the pathways to learning are logical, straightforward, reproducible, and predictable.  Academic knowledge is easily passed on by words or diagrams.  Clear sentence structure and well-labeled graphs are helpful.  Tangential information is ignored.  And once a problem is solved, the answer can be communicated in a straightforward manner.

Learning athletic skills requires a different approach entirely. Your ability to solve quadratic equations is irrelevant to your ability to figure out how to throw a forehand.  In fact, attempting to use the same tactics for learning motor skills as for math will actually inhibit the learning process!  Motor skills learning takes place in completely different parts of the brain.  This part of the brain communicates best by innuendo, analogy, and poetry.  It is reticent to focus, hard to control, and learns by trial and error.  Knowledge gained may or may not be well understood or able to be communicated.

Most ultimate players I know have a healthy mix of nerd and jock components in their personalities.  In coaching and practicing, it’s important to understand which part of the brain you are talking to and what methods work best.

Here are a few tips for communicating with the inner jock

1.  Focus on the movement effect. Extensive research by Gabriele Wulf shows that directing attention to the effects of the body’s motion rather than trying to consciously control the body’s motion greatly enhances the learning process (Wulf, 2007).  Oddly, attentional focus farther from the body proves more effective than focus at points closer to the body or within the body.  A tennis player does better by focusing on the movement produced in the ball rather than on the racket. An ultimate player will be better served by focusing on the angle and speed of the disc midway through a throw rather than at release.  Focusing on the resulting disc movement is better than thinking about the movement of the body such as snapping the wrist, for example.

2.  Use analogy and imagery.  Current research suggests that imagery or verbal cues can serve as shorthand for eliciting desired motor programs (movement patterns).  In throwing instruction telling a player to pretend that they are snapping a towel can help them to understand and reproduce the wrist snapping motion required for a forehand. Instructing players to pretend that they are balancing a glass of water on the disc as they release it can help them to keep it level and parallel to the ground at release.

3.  Understand the importance of error in trial and error.  When learning a new motor skill there will be a lot of variation between trials.  When providing feedback to players it is important to understand whether an error you see is a natural variation or a consistent flaw.  Providing detailed feedback for each trail of a throw will be an information overload.  Providing feedback for consistent flaws after watching many trials will be more effective.  Using the technique of overcompensation can also free our motor skills brain from the grips of the analytical, perfectionist part of the brain.  Overcompensation is simply the permission to err in the opposite direction.  For example, a thrower having difficulty getting a good inside out angle can be encouraged to throw an inside out blade.  Erring on both sides of the desired flight path enables the motor skills program to find the middle ground.


Wulf, G. (2007).  Attention and motor skill learning. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics

Millman, D. (1999).  Body-mind mastery: creating success in sport and life.  Navato, CA: New World Library