Whether out of envy or admiration, people have long been fascinated by the extraordinary skills of champion athletes such as Roger Federer (tennis), Michael Phelps (swimming), and Lionel Messi (soccer). Building on this interest, recent years have witnessed increasing collaboration among researchers from cognitive psychology, sport psychology, and cognitive neuroscience in studying the mental and neural processes that underlie expertise—or the growth of specialist knowledge and skills as a result of effortful experience—in sport. Such research has helped scientists understand how expert athletes manage to achieve certain remarkable feats in the face of severe time constraints and rapidly changing environmental conditions. For example, how can top tennis players hit winning returns of balls that travel toward them so fast (up to 250 kilometers, or more than 150 miles per hour) and cannot be seen clearly? This paradox is intriguing because in dynamic sports like tennis, the time taken for a ball to travel from one player to another is often shorter than the combined duration of an athlete’s reaction time and movement time. Thus, how do top athletes respond effectively to fast-moving balls before they consciously perceive them?
The answer lies in anticipation. Specifically, recent studies of rapid reactive sports like tennis, baseball, and cricket show that expert performers can circumvent fundamental information processing constraints by using clues (advance cues) from their opponents’ movement patterns to anticipate the direction, trajectory, and likely landing point of balls speeding toward them. Such cue utilization (or the ability to extract and extrapolate from task-relevant information provided by opponents’ behavior) gives athletes additional time to devise and execute appropriate responses to fast-moving balls. Clearly, expert athletes in fast-ball sports appear to have a cognitive (anticipation-based) rather than a physical advantage over less skilled athletes. This conclusion raises two key questions. First, what methods do psychology researchers use to investigate cue-utilization processes in athletes? Second, what are the main research findings in this field?
Investigating Visual Cue Utilization Processes in Sport
Various research methods have been used to investigate expert–novice differences in the perceptual–cognitive skills of athletes. These methods include qualitative procedures (e.g., protocol analysis, involving recording what people say as they think aloud while solving problems in their specialist sport), as well as quantitative strategies such as occlusion tasks, where viewers have to make sport-specific predictions based on limited information, and eye-tracking technology, which measures the location and duration of perceivers’ visual fixations elicited while viewing slides or movie clips of sporting scenes. The latter methods, which have proved fruitful in studying visual cue-utilization processes in athletes, are explained briefly as follows.
Occlusion tasks require people to make predictions, such as judging the likely direction of a shot in tennis, from sport scenes in which vital information is either obscured or incomplete. By analyzing how expert athletes differ from novices in their performance on these predictive tasks, researchers can establish the relative importance of different perceptual cues to likely outcomes. Normally, occlusion tasks can be either temporal or spatial. In temporal occlusion studies, participants have to guess what happens next when viewing film sequences in which certain important temporal information (e.g., disguising the flight-path of a ball) has been deliberately occluded. In spatial occlusion studies, specific portions of the visual scene are progressively removed or occluded from view, and their effects on viewers’ accuracy scores are analyzed. The assumption of this latter approach is that if there is a performance decrement when a particular spatial area of a stimulus display like the hips or shoulders of a tennis player model during a simulated serve is occluded from participants, then that area of interest seems likely to be especially informative to viewers.
Eye-trackers (whether fixed or mobile) are designed to record the location, duration, number, and sequence of a perceivers’ visual fixations as they look at slides or video film simulations of sport-relevant information in laboratory settings. Using such variables, eye-tracking researchers draw inferences about athletes’ visual search behavior. For example, the location of a visual fixation is usually regarded as an index of the relative importance of a given cue within the display being viewed. Similarly, the number and duration of athletes’ fixations in a particular region are believed to reflect the information-processing demands of the information displayed in that area.
Research Findings on Cue Utilization
A considerable volume of research on cue utilization processes in athletes has been conducted by sport psychology investigators using occlusion and eye-tracking methods. Three important findings of these studies may be summarized as follows. First, expert athletes are generally superior to novices in their ability to anticipate what their opponents will do next on the basis of advance visual cues extracted from their adversaries’ postural movements and from the relative motion between opponents’ bodily features. One advantage of this superiority in anticipation skills is that it gives expert athletes additional time to counteract the perceived intentions of their adversaries. Second, expert athletes appear to employ more efficient visual search strategies than those of novices when inspecting visual displays in their specialist sports. For example, elite performers tend to display fewer visual fixations than novices while viewing sport scenes, but these fixations are often of longer duration than those of their less skilled counterparts. In other words, experts tend to be drawn more than novices to information rich areas of interest in sport-related displays. Finally, expert athletes tend to be superior to novices in sporting pattern-recognition—using their greater knowledge of game-specific event probabilities to anticipate how a given scenario is likely to develop over time (see also the entry “Situational Awareness”).
Despite these advances in our understanding of cue utilization processes in athletes, at least two unresolved issues remain. First, the theoretical mechanisms underlying expert–novice differences in anticipation skills remain largely unknown.
Therefore, the attempt to explain how expert athletes acquire, develop, and update their anticipatory advantages over less proficient counterparts is an urgent priority for future researchers in this field. Second, there is little consensus at present among researchers as to whether or not it is possible to effectively train perceptual–cognitive skills in athletes. As before, additional research is required to arbitrate empirically on this issue.
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