Experienced sports players aren’t just highly skilled at executing their own actions, they also have what often seems like a supernatural ability to read the game, to watch other players and anticipate what’s going to happen next. A clever new study in Psychological Research offers insight into the brain basis of this aspect of sporting ability – the findings suggest that expert basketball players simulate in their minds the actions of other players in something akin to slow-motion, presumably giving them more time to interpret and read the actions.
Carmelo Vicario and his colleagues recruited twenty female basketball players with an average of 12 years playing experience, and they compared their performance on two perceptual tasks with a group of twenty experienced volleyball players and twenty sporting novices.
The first task involved watching short videos (just over two seconds total duration) depicting a woman basketball player throwing a ball at a basket. Around half a second after starting, each video was blanked for a short duration (between a tenth to half a second), and as it resumed the video either depicted a continuation of the earlier movement, or it showed a continuation of a different throw by the same woman. The participants’ task was to say whether the final video segment showed the same movement as seen at the start of the video or a different one.
Crucially, the final segment was either timed appropriately (as if the video had simply continued playing in the background during the blank section), or it began replaying at an earlier time in the movement than it should have done (as if the video had slowed down while it was blank), or at a later time than it should have done (as if the video had sped up during the blank).
The idea behind this task is that to make the required judgments, the participants have to use their own mental simulation and extrapolation of the throwing movement depicted at the start of the video and compare this against the action depicted in the final segment. They must ask themselves at some level – is this final part of the action what I would expect to see given how the action began?
The key finding is that the experienced basketball players were better than volleyball players and novices at judging whether the final action segment was from the same movement as depicted at the start of the video. But they only showed this superior performance when the final segment was timed appropriately or when it showed an earlier stage of the movement than it should have done. In fact, the experienced basketball players’ judgment was especially superior in this latter condition (when it was as if the video had been slowed down during the blank period).
These results are consistent with the idea that the experienced basketball players’ own mental simulation (and extrapolation) of the throwing action was in slow motion, thus making it easier for them to excel in the condition in which the action had effectively been slowed down in the blank period.
Meanwhile, the volleyball players performed no better than the sporting novices, which suggests the perceptual advantage shown by the basketball players comes specifically from their experience at basketball rather than from playing sport generally.
Seeing another player’s action unfold in slow motion in their mind’s eye might give experienced basketball players the ability to better anticipate and process what’s going to happen next, or to guess what’s happening after their view of an initial movement gets blocked, the researchers said. It will be interesting to see if similar results are found for experienced players from other sports watching actions by players from their sport.
There were some null results too: the experienced basketball players didn’t show the same advantage when the videos depicted a thrown ball in flight rather than a player’s throwing action, perhaps because the flight of the ball doesn’t provide the same useful perceptual cues as an athlete’s throwing action. Basketball players also didn’t excel compared with comparison groups in a follow-up task in which they had to make explicit judgments about whether the final video segment was delayed, timed as expected, or ahead of time. This suggests the experienced players’ superior performance (in the first task) was based on implicit processes that aided their ability to compare actions, rather than on their explicit sense of time passing.
Image: London 2012 – Women’s Basketball Final – France vs USA – FOWLES Sylvia and GODIN Elodie (Photo by HASLIN Frederic/Corbis via Getty Images).