The 2012 Olympics in London are about to start, and millions around the world will admire and ponder the mysteries of athletic performance. Psychological scientists are no exception. Researchers have examined how visual illusions improve sports performance, how attitudes and beliefs about competence determine performance and what exactly happens when we indulge in silly sports rituals.
Get Me Out of This Slump! Visual Illusions Improve Sports Performance
One way to sink that put, make the free throw, hit the bull’s eye with the arrow, is to think the target is bigger than it really is. That’s the surprising conclusion of a study in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.
In 2005, psychological scientist and competitive athelete Jessi Witt of Purdue University played on the U.S. National Ultimate Frisbee team, which won the gold medal at the World Games. Her interest in sports extended to her professional work and in this study, she and her co-authors explored visual perception and sports performance. When athletes look directly at the target without moving their eyes around—a pattern known as the Quiet Eye—they make more free throws, putts or other tasks. Can manipulating the size of the target affect performance? Thirty six participants putted to two physically different sized holes, but with one, a projector distorted the hole to make it look larger. The illusion worked. Putters made their mark more successfully to the perceptually bigger hole. One possible explanation is that a target that seemed to look larger increased the confidence of the putters, and confidence improves performance.
Silly Sports Rituals? Think Again
If you wear lucky underwear, grow a playoff beard, listen to pre-game pump-up jams, do the Haka dance or a slow clap, the science shows that observing these rituals will actually help you improve your game. Research published in Psychological Science demonstrated that activating superstitions by either saying something—like break a leg or keep your fingers crossed– or using a personal lucky charm really does lead to improved performance in golfing, memory games, anagrams and motor dexterity. Researchers found that the lucky charms help to boost our ability to believe that we can master a certain task. That belief does wonders to help us set higher goals, work more persistently and succeed. But if you don’t believe in luck, carrying that rabbit’s foot won’t help you.
Don’t Give Yourself a Pep Talk, Just Follow Your Own Instructions
If you catch yourself saying “you can do this!” when you’re tackling a fine movement, be sure to spell it out. Researchers made distinctions between motivational talk, in which participants would tell themselves “Let’s go!” or “I can do it!” as opposed to instructional self talk. In this version, participants’ silent conversations with themselves would focus on a specific task like “Focus”, or “Raise the elbow” or “Follow through.” They found that pumping yourself up for a task by using motivation was not as effective as repeating the instructions to yourself, .
After reviewing 32 studies on the topic, researchers from the University of Thessaly in Greece – a region that knows something about sports competitions – honed the self talk distinctions even more precisely. They suggested that self-talk can help by enhancing focus, increasing confidence, regulating effort, controlling cognitive and emotional reactions, and triggering automatic execution of the task. When tasks involved relatively fine motor demands, and new, compared with well-learned, tasks. Instructional self-talk was more effective for fine tasks than was motivational self-talk; moreover, instructional self-talk was more effective for fine tasks rather than gross tasks.
Learned Predictiveness Speeds Visual Processing
You’ve got to pass the ball and you see a player who almost always makes the goal, one who never makes the goal and one who sometimes does and sometimes doesn’t. Psychological science research suggests that you will more quickly recognise the face of the consistent players whether they’re good or bad, than the player who is inconsistent. A study from Bangor University in the UK, published in Psychological Science, paired faces and gains or losses. If a face was strongly linked to either winning or losing, it was recognised much more quickly than the face that wasn’t strongly associated with either success or failure. Researchers concluded that this means the relative value of an outcome, whether it was positive or negative, made a far less powerful impression on our visual consciousness than our ability to learn how to predict the action. And our ability to learn how to predict the outcome, our ability to consolidate a pattern, occurred very early on in terms of visual processing.
Baseball Catchers Lead the Team from Behind the Plate
Experienced catchers have always known what psychological science has recently uncovered: the catcher on a baseball team is the brains behind the team. Robert Arkin from Ohio State University, a former catcher and the father of baseball players, applies the insights of psychological science to the actions of the catcher in an article in the APS Observer. For example, why is it that it is often, when there are two strikes on the batter, many pitches technically within the strike zone are called balls? At the same time, conversely, the umpire’s strike zone is 93 square inches larger on a three-ball count than the strike zone on two-strike counts! This may not just be a function of a “dumb ref”. Instead this is an example of the power and influence of loss aversion, which is the tendency to strongly prefer avoiding losses to acquiring gains. Loss aversion affects catchers as well, who will call a different pitch for a 3-2 count that started off as an 0-2 count than for a 3-2 count that started off as a 3-0 count. The player behind the plate is the brains of the operation. Consider the visit to the mound to talk to a struggling pitcher. Whether to give advice, to motivate, or to tell a joke, the talk with a pitcher suggests leadership. In the world of psychological science, a catcher has a role-conferred advantage.