The Cognitive-Visual Strategies of Top Athletes

A regular reader named John De Palma sends along an interesting bit from a new Sports Illustrated article about top NBA rebounder Kevin Love:

“If a shot rises from the right wing, Love bolts to the left, in search of the low block on the weak side, which he straddles as though he’s barricading his front door. His knees are bent, his back straight, his shoulder blades pushing into the chest of whoever is unfortunate enough to be stuck behind him. He turns his head to track the flight of the ball, gauging trajectory like a centerfielder. A low liner will smack straight against the rim. A high archer will bounce around awhile. A three-pointer could carom all the way to the elbow. A floater might not reach the charge circle. He considers the shooter. One teammate, forward Michael Beasley, tends to miss off the back rim, so Love braces for a long rebound. Another, center Darko Milicic, usually misses off the front, so he tries for a tip-in.? “A different sense knocks into me when the ball is in the air,” Love says. “I know where it will hit and where it will land. I’m playing percentages, but it’s not a guessing game. Most of the time I’m right.”(…)The more accurate representation of Love’s prowess is his rebounding rate, the percentage of rebounds he snags when on the floor. Love’s was 24.6% through Sunday, the highest since Dennis Rodman‘s 25.6% in 1996–97(…)”

But De Palma is not content to offer a single example of an athlete’s strategic reasonings. Here are some more fascinating examples he sent along:

“…Before the Minnesota Twins’ Torii Hunter hears the crack of the bat, before he starts his sprint and times his jump to steal one more home run from one more exasperated hitter, he drops to his knees. Hunter kneels during batting practice, and as each ball flies overhead, he tries to visualize where it will land. “If I’m right,” Hunter says, “I’m ready.”…Hunter does not move with the pitch. He moves with the swing. He can tell by the angle of the bat and of the hitter’s front shoulder where the ball will go … Michael K. McBeath, a psychology professor at Arizona State University, has performed studies that compared outfielders catching baseballs to springer spaniels catching Frisbees. Most of the outfielders “have to keep their eye on the ball the entire time,” McBeath says. “The ones who can take their eye off the ball are the real experts.” Hunter is able to project the ball’s path by assessing its speed and angle without having to continually watch its flight…”

— from Play, the New York Times‘s (sadly) defunct sports magazine.


“… [Don] Mattingly said what amazed him most was how soon [Jason] Giambi determined where a pitch would end up. Many hitters identify a pitch in the split-second after a pitcher releases it. But Giambi can often read the location even earlier. If the pitch will be a ball, Giambi may not start his stride.? “He gives up on the ball so early, it’s almost like instantly when that guy lets it go, he can tell it’s a ball,” Mattingly said…Giambi said he had always been able to memorize a pitcher’s movements. In an interview, he casually mentioned the way Josh Towers, a Toronto Blue Jays pitcher, threw his curveball. Then Giambi moved his hand to other angles, showing how pitchers can telegraph location.? “I get on deck and I start looking at guys’ release points,” Giambi said. “You can pick things up from the side. I can tell you without even looking at the catcher, from his release point, if that’s a ball or a strike.”…He has always visualized his at-bats…Even now, his mental game directs him. Giambi probably takes fewer swings before a game than any other Yankee, often skipping batting practice to sharpen his skills in a cage under the stands. If he feels ready after five swings, that is all he will take.”

— from The New York Times


“…While running downfield at a full sprint, Dr. Vickers says, no receiver has an easy time focusing intently on the football. To track its flight pattern, Dr. Vickers says, receivers like [Larry] Fitzgerald have to glean whatever information they can about its speed, direction and rotation long before the ball gets close enough to catch. In some cases, she says, a receiver’s only chance to predict where the football will end up may come at the moment the quarterback lets go of the ball. To make a correct call, the receiver has to operate his eyes like a camera: opening the shutter, holding the lens steady and taking a snapshot with the longest possible exposure…Dr. Vickers says the best goalies and tennis players she’s studied have two skills. First, they use the quiet-eye technique to take a clear snapshot of an approaching object and then, while it approaches them, will instantly compare it to a vast library of memories drawn from years of practice and observation. By matching that object with others, they can make a perfect calculation of where it will go and how to put themselves in position to make the play — even if they aren’t looking at the ball. The best athletes, then, can succeed without having to open their eyes. “It’s a very, very amazing cognitive skill,” she says…”

–?The Wall Street Journal

And, finally, Malcolm Gladwell, writing in The New Yorker in 1999, on Wayne Gretzky:

“…Gretzky’s genius at that moment lay in seeing a scoring possibility where no one had seen one before. “People talk about skating, puck-handling, and shooting,” Gretzky told an interviewer some years later, “but the whole sport is angles and caroms, forgetting the straight direction the puck is going, calculating where it will be diverted, factoring in all the interruptions.”…Greg Rusedski, who is one of the top tennis players in the world, told reporters that he was going home to hit a thousand practice serves. One of the things that set Rusedski apart from lesser players, in other words, is that he is the kind of person who is willing to stand out in the summer sun, repeating the same physical movement again and again, in single-minded pursuit of some fractional improvement in his performance. Wayne Gretzky was the same way. He would frequently stay behind after practice, long after everyone had left, flipping pucks to a specific spot in the crease, or aiming shot after shot at the crossbar or the goal post…Jack Nicklaus, for instance, has said that he has never taken a swing that he didn’t first mentally rehearse, frame by frame. Yo-Yo Ma told me that he remembers riding on a bus, at the age of seven, and solving a difficult musical problem by visualizing himself playing the piece on the cello. Robert Spetzler, who trained with Wilson and is widely considered to be the heir to Wilson’s mantle, says that when he gets into uncharted territory in an operation he feels himself transferring his mental image of what ought to happen onto the surgical field. Charlie Wilson talks about going running in the morning and reviewing each of the day’s operations in his head–visualizing the entire procedure and each potential outcome in advance. “It was a virtual rehearsal,” he says, “so when I was actually doing the operation, it was as if I were doing it for the second time.”


These excepts highlight the wide range of human intelligence. When with the Bulls, Dennis Rodman used to spend shootarounds rebounding his teammates' shots instead of taking his own. He noted tendencies in players' missed shots, which allowed him to find the best rebounding position during games.

Sean Cooper

This touches on something else (talked about in Outliers): deliberate practice. Ddeliberate practice is what creates experts.


Are economics the great equalizer for the rare NBA breed-white power forward?


Of course, Jason Giambi without steroids did not excel in OBP as he did when he was on steroids. So any advantage people believe he had in watching for release points, etc. only appears when he was using. All players do this and with advanced video study the information is shared. It seems his real advantage was drug use. Maybe it improves the eye, but it's more likely the additional bat speed and power made pitchers more cautious about throwing strikes.

As for Gretzky, come on: you really think others didn't study caroms before? Gordie Howe is on the NHL Network's old games talking about Sid Abel and others would work the rebounds off the boards they knew at Olympia and how they'd stay for hours checking for any weird joints and angles. Wayne was great but not because he worked harder or thought of things no one else had.


I also read the SI article on Kevin Love. He was an average player his first two years. It was not until he was challenged (and rose to the occasion) over the summer to work harder and get in better shape that he was able to reach the playing level he is at now. Other players have commented on Love's "immoveability". Love knows the best spot for a rebound but if someone pushes him out then he's lost the advantage.

When I saw the title the first athlete I thought of was Gretzky, and how he was able to dominate the game in spite of his average size. Go to where the puck is going to be, not where it has been. When instructing youths it is paramount for a coach to get their players to visualize what they'll do for each play, and how to react to the unexpected. Kids would rather play, so it can be difficult to instill the discipline to establish routine as well as planning for and reacting to variables out of the players control. Kinda like economics?


Cash McDollar

It's obvious he Loves to rebound.
But the fans would Love to see him Score, Assist and Steal.
We would Love a full package deal; not miss, makeup and rebound.

Ian Kemmish

A "strategy" is something you work out beforehand with a pen and paper in order that you can get it right first time.

"Experience" is what teaches a sportsperson where a ball is going to go, after a couple of decades of trial and error.

The wise man will never conflate the two concepts.

Philip roberts

your topic is very important. now a days it is very popular. thanks for the opinion.

Dan M

@ jonathan: "Wayne was great but not because he worked harder or thought of things no one else had."

- really? So I assume you think Wayne just had God-given ability and was born the greatest hockey player ever? How exactly does he achieve that status without working harder than his competition?


Some basketball players just have a special gift when it comes to rebounding. Most of it is effort and having that special talent of knowing bounces and angles. You don't have to be super tall to be a great rebounder. Just look at Charles Barkley's rebounding numbers.

James V

Hundreds of observations, becoming hundreds of memories, rapidly sorted by the brain at the speed of light until the optimal action is chosen and acted upon seamlessly.

Whether your activity is golf, baseball, poker, Pac-Man, or arial dogfighting, situaional awareness is a component that can separate the competent from the novice, and the genius from the competent.

Drill-Baby-Drill Drill Team

"Dr. Vickers says the best goalies and tennis players she's studied have two skills. First, they use the quiet-eye technique to take a clear snapshot of an approaching object and then, while it approaches them, will instantly compare it to a vast library of memories drawn from years of practice and observation. By matching that object with others, they can make a perfect calculation of where it will go and how to put themselves in position to make the play - even if they aren't looking at the ball."

Willoughby was perplexed. The softball kept growing larger and larger. Then it hit him.

Steve in Pennsylvania

Thought becomes action; action become habit, habit becomes character; character becomes the man.
True in sports. True in the rest of life, too.


Jonathon, #4, you are way off on Gretzky. If you read Outliers you would know that Gladwell does not dismiss genetics or lucky chances, but concentrates on how one takes advantage of those chances.
With Gretzky, as with Sidney Crosby today, it's a matter of spending so much time practicing (which they might have considered play, not work), that they understand the game on a higher level. Look into Gretzky's early life and his home rink. He probably had more practice time by the time he was 16 than anyone else in history.

John Bannister

It is not just practice in a given set of circumstances that makes great athletes.
In cycling a significant factor in performance is avoiding accidents. You can develop skills and techniques to avoid accidents. Good businesses engage in risk management. In his Tour de France victories Lance Armstrong managed the risks of cycling with great skill.
What sets great athletes apart however is their ability to respond to the unexpected. In the tours that he won, Armstrong twice face circumstances for which he could not prepare.
In the standout, he was following his main competitor closely at speed descending through tight switchback curves. His opposition rider went through a corner too fast and fell in front of Armstrong who had no where to go but off the road. Without hesitation he dismounted and crossed a paddock to rejoin the race as the road curved back, mounting his bike on the run. No training, practice or risk management plan can prepare you for a situation like that.
In the other situation, he was riding in the closing stages of a mountain stage, when his handlebar snagged a handbag wrenching the bars around so that he fell (a failure of his risk management). He climbed back on his bike well behind his competition and responded with such determination that he rode past them to win the stage.
It takes more than practice and training.
John Bannister



This is akin to outfielders who get great jumps on fly balls. Yes, they want to know the pitch and location. But, the great ones[Mays, DiMaggio, etc.] had that intangible ability and were off @ the crack of the bat

Manoj Chennamangalam

Just finished my second read of 'Superfreakonomics' and could not resist sharing some of my thoughts. Did not find a 'Generic Comments' section hence penning them down here. Some of the analysis ,I felt, seem to be tending towards the "flashy" and not necessarily the "rigorous". Example : On the "Drunken walking" piece - I felt a bit more digging to the blood alcohol levels of the victims and data on how exactly the accidents took place (Did the victim walk on to an interstate highway thinking it is his drive way ? How far were the average victims walking off the sidewalk when the accident happened etc ..) would help understand if the drunken walking accidents were induced by drinking or purely because of walking in an unsafe manner (induced by alcohol, possibly) at night time. For example - would walking drunk with reflective clothing reduce the accident risk could be an intelligent question that could come up if such analysis were to be done.



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