Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Keeping your eye on the ball to improve sports performance

Back in elementary school gym class, virtually all of us were taught to keep our eyes on the ball during sports. But a growing body of research suggests that, as adults, most of us have forgotten how to do this. ...

Which is in part why the British researchers had half of their group of 40 duffers practice putting technique, while the other half received instruction in a gaze-focusing technique known as “Quiet Eye” training.

Quiet Eye training, as the name suggests, is an attempt to get people to stop flicking their focus around so much. But “Quiet Eye training is not just about looking at the ball,” says Mark Wilson, who led the study, published in Psychophysiology, and is a senior lecturer in human movement science at the University of Exeter in England. “It is about looking at the ball for long enough to process aiming information.” It involves reminding players to first briefly sight toward the exact spot where they wish to send the ball, and then settle their eyes onto the ball and hold them there.

This tight focus on the ball, Dr. Wilson says, blunts distracting mental chatter and allows the brain “to process the aiming information you just gathered” and direct the body in the proper motions to get the ball where you wish it to go. ...

And in fact, after Dr. Wilson had his golfing volunteers practice for hours on either specific aspects of stroke technique or on focusing their gaze and not worrying about technique, those who had worked on their gaze were more accurate than those who had fine-tuned their technique. ...

Similar results have been reported among soccer penalty kickers...

[I]n a study published last year in the journal Cognitive Processing, collegiate players who were instructed to look briefly toward one of the upper, far corners of the goal and then immediately back to the ball, ignoring the goalie, significantly improved their shooting accuracy and reduced by 50 percent the number of times the goalie blocked their try, compared to teammates who didn’t quiet their gaze. ....

Dr. Wilson says, after having extensively studied just how the best golfers look, he now teaches novice golfers at his lab to “keep their gaze on the back of the ball, which is the contact point for the putter, for a brief period before starting the putting action” — long enough to, for instance, “say ‘back of the cup’ to themselves,” he says. The golfers are told to hold that position throughout the putting stroke and, he says, “importantly, after contact for a split second. I often ask golfers to rate the quality of their contact on the ball from 1 to 10, before they look up to see where the ball went.”
--Gretchen Reynolds, NYT, on the power of the gaze