In sport and exercise psychology, anticipation usually refers to the ability to quickly and accurately predict the outcome of an opponent’s action before that action is completed. Skilled athletes can use bodily cues to anticipate outcomes at earlier moments in an action sequence than can unskilled athletes, allowing them more time to perform an appropriate response in time-stressed tasks. A basic understanding of anticipation requires a comprehension of how skilled athletes anticipate actions, how anticipation is best tested, and what the practical implications are for training anticipation.
How Skilled Athletes Anticipate Actions
Anticipation is most commonly tested by occluding vision at a critical point in an action sequence, after which the observer must predict the action outcome. For instance, a tennis player may observe an opposing player performing a serve, but at the moment of racquetball contact, vision is occluded, and the receiver must predict the direction of the serve. Skilled athletes in a wide range of sports do better than lesser skilled performers in these tests, including in tennis, soccer goalkeeping, squash, and batting in baseball and cricket. Occlusion is achieved in the laboratory using edited video footage or in the field by using liquid crystal glasses that quickly and selectively occlude vision.
Skilled athletes anticipate action outcomes based on events presented earlier in a movement sequence, providing a distinct advantage for sports skill that must be performed under severe time constraints. The selective occlusion of different body segments (e.g., the arms or legs) in video displays has shown that experts—when compared with novices—rely on the movement of body segments that are more remote from the end effector. For example, novice badminton players typically anticipate based on the movement of the opponent’s racquet, whereas skilled players use the movement of the opponent’s racquet and arm. Attention toward the arm provides a temporal advantage, as movement of the arm precedes the movement of the racquet. The expert advantage in anticipation is based on sensitivity to kinematic movement patterns, rather than to figural or contextual cues. Point-light displays replace video footage of an opponent with a series of isolated points of light located at critical joint centers; expert–novice differences in anticipation are replicated when athletes view these displays. Evidently, skilled athletes have developed the ability to understand the consequences of the underlying kinematic movement pattern of their opponents. It is likely that this skill has developed not only as a consequence of observing these movements but also by skilled athletes performing the same actions. Perception may share a mutual form of neural programming with the production of action; recent work has shown that anticipation of an action relies on the same brain region that is used when generating the same action.
Anticipation can be tested using a range of different display stimuli and responses. While it is most favorable to use conditions that accurately reflect those found in the natural environment, the need for consistency and control in testing conditions means that this is not always possible. Skilled athletes outperform lesser skilled players in simulated conditions; however, the degree of superiority will be an underrepresentation of the true ability that would be found in the natural environment.
Video simulations allow anticipation to be tested in a very reliable and repeatable manner, though they often lack the size, contrast, or depth information available in real life. Liquid crystal occlusion goggles allow anticipation to be tested in the performance setting; this improvement in display fidelity usually leads to a commensurate increase in the size of the expert–novice difference.
Perception-Action Coupling Training Anticipatory Skill
Perceptual training programs are used to improve the anticipatory skill of developing athletes. These programs expose learners to a high volume of action sequences (usually occluded), observed either using video displays or in the field setting and often accompanied by some form of guiding information to accelerate skill acquisition. Perceptual training generally leads to an improvement in anticipatory skill, though there is conjecture about the most effective forms of training. Intuitively, practitioners have sought to provide learners with explicit information about how they should search for and interpret kinematic cues. More recent work suggests that implicit means of training, which guide attention without the provision of explicit rules, may enhance the likelihood that a skill is retained and may render the skill more robust under stress.
Athletes make perceptual predictions in most tests of anticipation (e.g., verbal or pen-and-paper); however, the separation of perception from action may miss an important element of sporting expertise. It is likely that perceptual responses test only the vision-for-perception neurological pathway; in contrast, skilled athletes rely on a specific vision-for-action pathway to produce real-time movements in the natural setting. Accordingly, it has been found that movement-based responses provide a better assessment of skilled anticipation than purely perceptual responses do.
Facilitation of Performance
Skilled athletes use prerelease information to facilitate early and appropriate body positioning, rather than to stipulate the exact location the ball or target will arrive. This allows for better use of postrelease information to engender successful interception. The kinematic movement pattern of the opponent is also used to coordinate the timing and movement of an athlete’s response. The importance of anticipatory skill suggests the need for advance information to be present in the training environment to optimize learning; for example, this principle has been used to argue against the use of ball projection machines, as they remove the kinematic movement information essential for anticipation.
- Abernethy, B., & Russell, D. G. (1987). Expert-novice differences in an applied selective attention task. Journal of Sport Psychology, 9, 326–345.
- van der Kamp, J., Rivas, F., van Doorn, H., & Savelsbergh, G. J. P. (2008). Ventral and dorsal contributions in visual anticipation in fast ball sports. International Journal of Sport Psychology, 39(2), 100–130.
- Williams, A. M., Ward, P., Knowles, J. M., & Smeeton, N. J. (2002). Anticipation skill in a real-world task: Measurement, training, and transfer in tennis. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied, 8, 259–270.