Reprinted with permission from Peak Performance.
Getting The Competitive Advantage
Or at least this is how it appears to the spectator in the stands. But is there anything in the notion that some players are blessed with infinite time? That some genetic advantage allows a few lucky individuals to react as if the rest of the world were moving in slow motion?
'You would think there would have to be something innate in the make-up of a person like a McEnroe because a lot of the population could practise as much as he did, yet never reach his level of performance,' says Bruce Abernethy, a sports psychologist at the University of Queensland in Australia. 'But it's not easy to say what it is that makes the difference. It's not likely to be any one simple answer but a mixture of factors.'
While sports psychologists may not have a ready explanation for sporting genius, they are beginning to turn up a few clues - and also a few surprises.
One surprise has been that raw reaction times do not appear to be the answer. When top athletes take standard reaction time tests - such as hitting a switch as soon as it lights up they are no faster than average.
'There is surprisingly little difference between top-class athletes and good, fit ordinary people,' says Peter McLeod of the University of Oxford's Department of Experimental Psychology. 'In laboratory tests of reactions using unskilled tasks, most people show much the same reaction time of about a fifth of a second. So top-class athletes don't appear to be tapping into some generalised superiority,' says McLeod.
Even more surprising for those expecting an explanation in terms of a speedier nervous system, other research has shown that it takes nearly half a second for our minds to become properly conscious of fast-moving events.
Measurements of the brain's electrical activity indicate it takes only about 20 milliseconds for nerve impulses to travel the distance between the sense organs and the brain. However, reaction-time tests show that it takes a minimum of 100 milliseconds before the brain can produce even the simplest action and nearer 200 milliseconds to make the more complex judgement involved in hitting a light switch.
But research by Benjamin Libet, a physiologist at the University of California at Berkeley, suggests that becoming conscious of an event takes even longer.
His experiments show that it takes between 400-and-500 milliseconds for the brain to complete all the filtering and recognition processes needed to produce a subjective experience. This suggests that consciousness lags behind reality by up to half a second. So any rapid reactions shown by athletes must be achieved by subconscious processing.
A cricket or tennis player has about S milliseconds to hit a fast-moving ball - any sooner or later with the swing and the player will miss the ball.
So the mystery is not that some people are so skilful but that anyone ever manages to strike a ball at all.
The Advantage Of An Expert Eye
To investigate the source of the top performer's advantage, sports psychologists begin by making a distinction between input and output - between perceptual and motor processes. The researchers assume that the gifted either manage to make sense of what they are seeing more quickly, or else they are able to unleash a more reliable and smoothly coordinated response - or both.
So top performers are not faster than the rest of us in their raw reaction times - scores vary by about 25 milliseconds and there is no significant clustering of the skilled at the top of this range. But equally there is plenty of evidence that gifted players do use anticipation to quicken their responses and that they have a superior ability to read the game.
The advantage of an expert eye was first demonstrated away from the sports pitch in intellectual games such as chess. Research showed that grandmasters seem able to sum up a board at a glance. Given five seconds to look at a complex position, top players remembered the arrangement of 90 percent of the pieces, compared with good club players who could manage only 50 percent.
It seems that grandmasters could 'chunk' their perception of the board - breaking what they saw into a small number of meaningful units - so increasing the apparent bandwidth of their processing.
But if the position of the chess pieces was random, not taken from a real game, the performance of both groups fell to the same level.
What Does This Have To Do With Sports Physchology?
Over the past decade, sports psychologists have taken games such as hockey, basketball and soccer, testing players with slides of meaningful and random field positions, and found the same perceptual chunking process at work.
It seems that while information may not enter the brain of top performers significantly faster, where the novice experiences only a blur of details, the expert sees a well-ordered set of possibilities.
Such an ability to read the game allows the expert to anticipate and so bridge the split-second gap that exists between reality and the brain's perceptual processes. Abernethy says studies have shown that top performers are skilled at anticipating what their opponents are about to do.
For example, a group of novice and professional badminton players were compared to see how quickly they could detect which way an opponent was about to flick a shuttle. While novices had to wait until they saw the racket head start to move, the experts could guess much earlier from preliminary movements of the body and arm.
'Experts do a good mechanical analysis of their opponent's playing action and can tell whether a shot is going cross-court or down the line. Sometimes the cue may be no more than movements in the large muscles of the chest,' Abernethy says.
The same early response is true of tennis, where top players can tell from a server's action whether the ball will land on their forehand or backhand, and of cricket, where a first-class bat will have decided whether to play off the back foot or front foot at least 100 milliseconds before a fast bowler has released the ball.
The interesting thing about such anticipation, says Abernethy, is that players seem to go by a gut feeling - a subconscious recognition - and the only way to discover the cues they are actually using is to film the bowler's or server's action and then see what is happening in the frame where the expert guess is made.
'You can't teach people anticipation by saying look at point A or point B. It just has to come with practice and players may never really know what they are reacting to,' says Abernethy.
Anticipating The Unexpected
Top athletes become so good at anticipation that their responses can seem almost instantaneous, as if no reaction gap existed. However, players can be cruelly exposed whenever a ball or opponent does something unexpected. McLeod carried out one of the best-known experiments to demonstrate the 'incompressibility' of the blindspot in human reactions.
McLeod got three England batsmen, Allan Lamb, Wayne Larkins and Peter Willey, to face a bowling machine on a special matting pitch. Under the matting he placed a number of dowel rods to make the ball seam unpredictably. What McLeod found was that if the ball bounced sharply sideways closer than 200 milliseconds to the bat, then the batsmen would misplay the ball every time. No correction was possible.
Anticipation studies seem to suggest that the superior reactions of top performers are due largely to learning rather than any innate factor. But, as Abernethy says, many people practise long and hard, yet few turn into a McEnroe or a Gascoigne. So it could be that the genetic component at play is a greater 'trainability' of the nervous system.
For example, some players might find it easier to develop anticipation skills because they have been born with better visuo-spatial and pattern-recognition abilities. Certainly, one of the distinguishing features of both McEnroe and Gascoigne appears to be their imagination - their ability to visualize more possibilities in a given situation.
But part of the impression that gifted athletes give of having infinite time also comes from the silky smoothness of the way they make their shots. Again, some sports psychologists suspect that the genetic component of such motor skill may not lie in some pure measure of coordination but in the trainability of a person's nervous system.
Anecdotal evidence suggests that in learning a skill, whether it is playing tennis, driving a car or unscrewing a bottle cap, there is a progression from crude, conscious control of the action to smooth, automatic performance. Medical scanners that can track brain blood flows are providing neurological evidence of this progression.
In the early stages of learning a skill, the higher conscious parts of the brain - the cortex and basal ganglia - are most active. But as the skill is mastered, these areas drop out of the picture and control is taken over by the cerebellum, the brain's specialised movement centre, says John Stein, a physiologist at the University of Oxford.
The cerebellum used to be thought of as just a memory store for motor routines - a blind, inanimate warehouse which produced stereotyped responses when triggered by a command from higher consciousness. However, there is evidence to show that the cerebellum has considerable - albeit unconscious - intelligence. The cortex may set the global goals but the cerebellum can improvise to meet them.
Stein says support for this view comes from the discovery that there are two routes by which sensations reach the cerebellum. There is a cortical route where sensations are mapped first on the cortex (forming a conscious picture) and then passed down to the cerebellum.
But there is also a direct route from the eyes to the cerebellum, bypassing the cortex. This route quickly delivers the information needed to control subconscious skills.
A 'High-IQ' Cerebellum?
The tempting conclusion is that gifted athletes may simply be born with a 'high-lQ' cerebellum. They may have a specialized motor genius that allows them to be more creative and agile in executing shots. While it is too early to rule out such a 'raw advantage' hypothesis, sports psychologists such as John Fazey of the University College of North Wales at Bangor believe the explanation could be more subtle.
Fazey says it might simply be that some people are better at automating skills. Something in their make-up may allow them to download more of a complicated sporting action from clumsy conscious control to smooth subconscious performance. Whatever produces a skilled cerebellum, the difference is obvious. Top tennis and cricket players never seem to have to remind themselves to move their feet or turn their shoulders because these preparatory movements appear to be so automatic.
Their bodies snap into position, leaving them poised to strike a clean shot. But weekend amateurs find themselves forever wrestling with their own limbs, mechanically trying to get all the parts in the right place, then finding they are forced to make a cramped swipe because the ball is already upon them.
Somewhat unkindly, sports psychologists describe the amateur's plight as one of near skeletomuscular anarchy. Yet measurements of muscle and nerve activity show this to be an apt description. Where the nervous system of a skilled performer delivers small, accurate bursts of instructions to the limbs, producing a smooth response, that of the unskilled fires off blasts of often contradictory messages, creating a jerky, awkward movement as opposing muscles end up pushing and pulling at the same time.
Putting all this evidence together, sports science still cannot say precisely what makes a McEnroe or a Maradona, or an Agassi. It is obvious that years of dedicated training play a huge part. Also, differences in childhood stimulation may be important - Agassi, for instance, was taught to bat a dangling balloon while still in his high chair.
Such stories are typical of great athletes. Then there is the contribution of genes, although the likelihood is that the genetic component of exceptional skill has more to do with a capacity to benefit from training than with a set of raw ingredients such as reaction speed.
But it seems that gifted performers are better at using anticipation to cover for a lagging brain. By reading their opponent's game, the skilled prime themselves to react to what they imagine will happen rather than waiting until it does. They create a 'virtual reality' which allows them to act as if consciousness was indeed instantaneous.
Coupled to this perceptual priming is a smooth and intelligent execution of body movement. The gifted player's brain not only knows what it should do, it also has the automated skills to carry out the actions with a minimum of fuss and maximum of accuracy.
So the spectator is right after all. The gifted are conjurors of time. They buy extra time with anticipation and avoid losing time by automating their responses. The irony is that if a McEnroe or a Gascoigne wants to appreciate their own skills then, like any other spectator, they will have to wait the split-second or so it takes for their conscious awareness to catch up with the shots their subconscious processes have just chosen to play. And any feeling they might have had of being there at the time was just an illusion.
John McCrone is the author of Going Inside (1999)
(This article first appeared in New Scientist)