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Interviewees: Jessica Witt, Purdue University
The Big Shot
It’s the pressure shot, the “money ball,” the now-or-never, the it’s-all-on-the-line show time do-or-die game seven grand-slam kick-it-to-win-it championship shot. Or, maybe it’s just that weekend warrior moment to beat your brother.
Professional athletes thrive on it and amateur athletes strive to tame it.
It’s honed during practice so that “it” will be there for the game.
“It” is that relationship between your mind and your body, what you perceive you need to do, and what your body actually does.
But, even with practice, whether you’re the best in your sport or a casual player, there are good days and bad days. In baseball, hitters describe good days as when the baseball “looks like a beach ball.” Or in golf, that the cup seems somehow bigger.
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“We don’t think that perception is just this objective recapture of what’s already out there,” says Witt, adding, “it’s a subjective impression of the world and that it relates to one’s own abilities.”
She’s been testing this by asking athletes their impression of key things in their sport.
In her most recent test, she asked golfers who had just finished playing to find on a chart the black circle that was the same size as a cup on the green. She says, “What we found was that the golfers who scored better selected larger circles,” adding that this “implies that they perceive the hole as bigger.”
Conversely, the golfers who didn’t do as well chose smaller circles.
The study, published in the Psychonomic Bulletin and Review journal, confirms a similar study that she did as a graduate student at the University of Virginia.
There she and associates asked softball players who finished playing to choose on a chart the circle that was the size of the softball. The better day a player had at the plate, the larger the circle the player chose.
She says these effects in perception are not limited to athletes, explaining, “It’s present in anyone and everyone.”
For instance, she says, “If you are presented with the task of having to hike up a steep hill and you’re tired or you are carrying a heavy load such as a heavy backpack, that hill’s going to look a lot steeper.”
As to the chicken-and-egg question of which comes first, perception or performance, Witt says it works in a cycle, without one “necessarily preceding the other.”
Of the cyclical relationship, Witt says it’s possible it “is actually responsible for the phenomenon known as ’streaks’ or ’slumps.’” It’s an area she plans on investigating in the future.
This leads to the question of whether someone can perform better by imagining, for example, a softball to be bigger. Witt is doubtful, noting, “They occur even if you know that they’re happening and you can’t use your mind to reverse them. You can’t tell yourself what to see. The world presents itself to you and you think that you’re seeing it the way that it is, and even if you tried to change your perception, you’re not going to be able to.”
Which is a gentle warning to athletes everywhere, that while you may now better understand your bad days, you’re still going to have them.
This research was published in the Psychonomic Bulletin and Review journal for June, 2008 and supported by a grant from the National Institutes of Health.
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