In the past, we’ve talked about the difficulty in determining exactly what cognitive skills sets elite athletes apart from their competition. Simple laboratory tests of reaction time or visual skills don’t do a very good job. Given the complexity of the decisions and movements that athletes make during competition, it’s not surprising that it turns out we have to dig a little deeper, and make things more sport-specific before we can start teasing those differences out.
Research on elite athletes’ anticipation skills suggests that it may not be the simple, reactive skills that set athletes apart. Research out of Brunel University and the University of Hong Kong have shown that when watching tape of opponents, the areas of athletes’ brains associated with observation and prediction light up, and that those athletes then react quicker to their opponents’ movements than non-experts (summary, abstract).
This anticipatory expertise has been observed in a number of different types of athletes. Baseball players have been shown to have the ability to predict what type of pitch is coming without even seeing the pitcher release the ball, and they can predict pitch position based on just a few feet of flight (Article). Tennis players have similar skills with respect to serve type and position (Article). These studies are carried out using a technique called temporal occlusion–the selective withholding of information with respect to time. Batters are shown video of a pitcher in his windup, but the video cuts out just as the ball is about to be released.
Based on athletes’ reports and technology that tracks their eye movements, we know that athletes anticipate what’s coming next by focusing only on the most relevant cues in an opponents’ movement pattern. And that this skill changes and becomes refined with training. The eyes of novices are all over the place, whereas athletes’ focus is much more targeted and economical (Article). Across a number of different sports, expert athletes demonstrate similar “visual search strategies”. Their eyes focus on fewer targets, jump around less, and they stay focused for longer periods of time than do the eyes of novices.
This all points toward a common trend in the development of athletic expertise–athletes become more efficient as they progress and gain experience and skill. They become stronger by developing more efficient neuromuscular connections. They get faster and more agile by economizing on wasted movements. This research also suggests that the visual and cognitive aspects of high-level performance also go through a process of refinement, much like the physical ones.