Basketball on the Brain
By Nicole LaRosa
The numbers say it all. 485 points. 130 assists. 61 steals. Erin Rooney had an amazing 2012-2013 season. The Christchurch, New Zealand, native helped lead Fordham to the Atlantic 10 Women’s Basketball Championship game at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn.
She was among the top scorers and best free-throw shooters in the league. But even she can’t fully explain why an excellent player might hit one foul shot and miss the next one. Why is a shot that seems so simple sometimes so hard to make?
“Coaches always say that free throws are 75 percent mental and 25 percent physical,” says Rooney, a senior and an integrative neuroscience major at Fordham College at Rose Hill. “When I go up there, I say to myself, ‘You’ve made a hundred of these today, this is just one.’” Still, since high school, she’s wondered what happens in her brain that helps her make those shots—or that trips her up so that she misses them.
It’s that same curiosity that often has her questioning her coaches. “They would tell me to run a certain way, and I’d have to know why this way instead of that way,” Rooney says. “I always need to process how things work. “That’s why I like neuroscience. Because I can try to figure out how people tick.” When she was a teen, her mother, a schoolteacher, brought home The Owner’s Manual for the Brain. She studied it endlessly.
But Rooney had to put her study of the brain on hold when she first came to the States. Coach Stephanie Gaitley originally recruited her from New Zealand to play for Monmouth University in New Jersey, and the school did not offer a neuroscience major. “I decided I was just going to focus on basketball,” says the 5-foot-8-inch guard.
When Gaitley became head women’s basketball coach at Fordham in 2011, she wanted Rooney to make the move with her. But Rooney wasn’t sure. Then she met with the dean of science education at Rose Hill. “She pulled out a proposal for a neuroscience major,” Rooney says, and the decision was made.
Fordham’s integrative neuroscience major—offered at both the Rose Hill and Lincoln Center campuses since fall 2013—offers three tracks of study: cognitive, cell and molecular, and systems and computational neuroscience. Students choose one track to focus on, but must become familiar with all three areas of this fast-growing field.
Rooney, who is in the cell and molecular track, recently came up with a topic for the two-semester research project required of all neuroscience majors. Using software called BrainMap, Rooney will seek to identify patterns among neurological studies that look at which parts of the brain are involved in racial stereotyping, a topic inspired by a course she took on law and psychology. The neuroscience major is one of Fordham’s most rigorous, says Amy Roy, Ph.D., associate professor of psychology and director of the neuroscience program.
“Erin certainly is very motivated even to take on this major when she clearly is extremely busy,” says Roy, adding that studying a topic that interests her will help Rooney stay focused during basketball season. And there’s always the hope that she can enlighten future basketball players on the mental tricks behind a good foul shot.
“That is my dream,” Rooney says, “to be able to do neuroscience in relation to basketball.”