What You See is What You Get

In sports, perception and performance are closely linked.

In the fifth set of the semifinals of last year’s U.S. Open, Novak Djokovic was down three games to five and 15-40, facing two match points against Roger Federer, perhaps the most talented, certainly the most admired, tennis player of his generation. The Serb waited coolly at the baseline, barely moving except for a slight swaying of his shoulders, when in an instant, Federer’s 110-miles-per-hour serve was on him, jamming his right side. Djokovic violently corkscrewed his body through the ball, making a risky cross-court forehand winner that stayed just barely in bounds. After he went on to win the match, Djokovic told the press, “The forehand return, I cannot explain to you because I don’t know how it happened.”

According to Stephen Walker, founder of Health & Sport Performance Associates, Djokovic had displayed a key characteristic of top-level athletic performance: the ability to switch one’s focus very quickly from perception to decision to action — what’s known as the PDA cycle. Djoko-vic first assessed the trajectory and power of Federer’s serve, as well as his opponent’s position and movement and other inputs from the external environment. Then, as he moved into the decision phase, his focus became internal, incorporating cues from his body and perceptions of his own abilities in order to select the most effective shot that could be made. Finally, as he switched into the action phase, cognition and analysis shut down and instinct and muscle memory took over to execute the shot. All in the slimmest fragment of an instant.

As players become more proficient, said Walker, they are even able to go through a secondary perception and decision phase before they execute their action. Essentially, they make yet another assessment before playing their shot. In a player’s normal performance state, the PDA cycle is in serial operating mode. Peak performance, however, is enabled by a much more efficient parallel operating mode in which processes that were sequential become simultaneous.

James J. Gibson, a 20th-century psychologist, proposed that there is a tight coupling between perception and action in human beings. The internal and external information we detect specifies to us possibilities for performing an action. Gibson called these possibilities “affordances” and theorized that they are in continual flux dependent upon context. Affordances indicate to us what we are capable of doing before we actually do it. Studies have shown that elite athletes demonstrate a superior ability to perceive not only their own capabilities, but also those of others. Bruce Abernethy of the School of Human Movement Studies at the University of Queensland, writing in the journal Perception, noted that in the realm of athletic expertise, learning appears “to be characterized by progressive perceptual discrimination, increased attunement to ... the essential informative features.”

Athletes commonly refer to this heightened level of perception as “being in the zone.” Tennis or baseball players say they see the ball moving slowly, almost suspended, and growing larger and larger. The athlete feels calm, alert and supremely capable — completely aware, but also completely un-self-conscious. Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers has described it this way: “When you’re throwing the football the way you want to, you’re not thinking about it. It’s just coming off your hand exactly the way you want it to, fluid and confident.”

There is a good deal of research documenting this phenomenon, showing that how an athlete performs influences the way he sees the world — not just metaphorically, but on a physiological level. According to Christof Koch, a professor of cognitive and behavioral biology at the California Institute of Technology, “Our awareness is informed and fine-tuned by any number of transient factors — our strength and energy levels, our sense of con-fidence, our fears and desires.”

Is the converse also true? Does perception affect performance? In a study published in April 2012 in Psychological Science, Jessica Witt, assistant professor of psychological sciences at Purdue University, sought to find out. The study involved 36 college students putting a golf ball. Using an optical trick called the Ebbinghaus illusion, the researchers altered how the subjects perceived the size of the golf hole. In the first trial, they projected a ring of 11 small circles of light that made the hole look larger. In the second trial, they projected five large circles that made the hole look smaller. It was expected that seeing the hole as larger than it really was might make the putters less precise and therefore less accurate, but the opposite turned out to be true. “When people perceived the hole to be bigger, they made their putts more successfully,” wrote Witt. “We suspect that a bigger target makes people feel more confident in their ability.”

Witt also believes that her study may indicate, contrary to what many exercise physiologists believe, that the neural pathways that govern perception, decision and action are intertwined such that each continually affects the others. How an athlete perceives his capabilities, the task at hand and the environment at large will dictate his performance — even if those perceptions are distorted. “Most people consider perception just to be about optical information,” said Witt. “We are finding instead that what you see relates to your abilities. This explains moment-to-moment performance.”

This would seem to reinforce the objectives of sports psychology, in which the goal is to bolster the athlete’s ability to control his perception of the competitive moment, to be in it but not of it, to be confident but not self-aware, to focus on execution and not outcome. Sports psychologists employ various techniques to try to achieve this state, including attention-focusing exercises, self-talk, meditation and guided imagery visualization.

“Imagery rehearsal is more than sheer imagination,” said Dr. Richard Suinn, a psychologist at Colorado State University. It is, he says, “a well--controlled copy of experience, a sort of body-thinking similar to the powerful illusion of dreams.” It is not only visual, he said, but “also tactile, auditory, emotional and muscular.” Suinn cites research indicating that visual-motor-behavioral rehearsal has improved performance in basketball, tennis, golf and even diving.

“Training is no longer simply an act of getting the muscles used to lactate or teaching the lungs how to breathe harder,” said Ross Tucker, a researcher with the Sports Science Institute of South Africa. “It’s also about getting your brain to accept new limits.” In other words, it is about learning to perform to the parameters of a world that is, to some degree, of our own making.