14 August 2011

Link of the day: "It's all about anticipation"

Recently, there was a neat article from Sports Illustrated about the role of anticipation and experience in world class athletes.

An important concept is that experts "chunk" information into meaningful pieces rather than looking at all the little details.
Before occlusion studies shed light on perceptual expertise in sports (the first significant tests were performed by Canadian researcher Janet Starkes on volleyball players in 1975), studies of chess masters were beginning to illuminate the underlying processes. In famous experiments starting in the 1940s, Dutch psychologist and chess master Adriaan de Groot gave grandmasters and club chess players five seconds to look at chessboards with the pieces arranged in game scenarios. Then the arrangement was taken away, and De Groot had the players reconstruct the board they had just seen. Grandmasters could remember the position of nearly every piece, while decent club players could reconstruct only about half the board. De Groot and subsequent researchers determined that the masters were "chunking" information—rather than remember the position of every piece separately, the grandmasters grasped small chunks of meaningful information, which allowed them to place the pieces. We all use this strategy to an extent in daily life. For example, while it would be difficult to remember 15 random words, it's much less difficult to remember a coherent 15-word sentence because one need only recall bits of meaning and grammar, which coordinate the order of words in your head...

What major league players and pro tennis and cricket athletes seem to do is to synthesize and group information about the human body based on their playing experience...
Being able to process the information in smaller, but larger pieces allows the expert to process information much more quickly. This is especially important for athletes, who don't have time to think.
... Peyton Manning would probably have trouble recalling the exact position of randomly distributed players in the Colts' locker room, but show him those players positioned on a football field, and he would be better at recalling the arrangement because each segment—the positioning of the defensive backs relative to his receivers, for example—has an underlying, unifying meaning for him. That's why crafty defensive coordinators attempt to disguise a defense: They try to forestall Manning's ability to predict the future using cues from patterns he's seen before.

... Additionally, a quarterback, like a baseball batter, does not have time to consciously analyze everything he sees...

... Phillip L. Ackerman, a professor of psychology at Georgia Tech who studies skill acquisition, uses a military analogy to describe a quarterback's decision-making process: "It's an if-then task. If you recognize a certain pattern, you react to it. And you have to do it without thinking about it. It's like a soldier taking apart a weapon when it jams. You learn it to the level where you can do it without thinking, because people are shooting at you."
This idea about the value of experience and how it separates experts from beginners is something that I've seen before and that I find really interesting.

Experience allows you to take mental shortcuts. Like the difference between an expert and a student solving a classical mechanics problem. The expert quickly guesses what is the best and most efficient way to solve the problem (use energy conservation), whereas the student is worrying about the details (how do I connect mass, velocity, and energy?) Or a native vs a ELS student reading English text. The native reads chunks of text whereas the student has to read each word.

That's not all. The Sports Illustrated article also notes that since the anticipatory processes are sub-conscious, this needs to be taken into account in high pressure situations.
This science contradicts some of sports' hoariest beliefs. The exhortation of every Little League coach to "keep your eye on the ball"? Impossible. "If you monitor the eyes of batters, the gaze stops tracking the ball before they hit," Abernethy says. "You don't have a visual system fast enough to track the angular changes that occur over the last few meters of the flight." Nonetheless, he says, keep your eye on the ball is probably sound advice, because it keeps your head still and pointed in the right direction to gather the necessary information from the pitcher's body.

"The real advice would be, 'Watch the shoulder,'" Abernethy says, "but [even] that doesn't help. It actually makes [players] worse." That's because forcing an athlete to think consciously about an automated task destroys his ability to anticipate and puts him back in the realm of reaction.

Coaches who call timeouts to ice free throw shooters and field goal kickers are trying to exploit what researchers have codified: Break up the routine; get the player thinking. University of Chicago psychologist Sian Beilock, author of the book Choke, has demonstrated that, in golf, pressure-induced poor putting can sometimes be overcome with simple remedies such as singing to yourself or counting backward by threes. For automated tasks like putting or placekicking, mild distraction, rather than intense concentration, may be the best approach because it keeps the process out of the higher-conscious areas of the brain, where what Beilock calls "paralysis by analysis" takes root.
At this rate, I might as well copy the entire article, but yeah, there is a lot of good stuff in it.

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