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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.”