What skills separate the best players from the rest ? Might it be worth getting an eye test ?
I went to a very interesting talk this week given by Dr Andre Roca, from St Mary’s University Twickenham, whose research focuses on the psychology of expertise and skill acquisition in sports.
Vision, pattern recognition and movement anticipation in football.
The skills that separate Premier footballers from lower league players, have been extensive researched and documented. Analysis of this work has found clear differences between players, in their speed of decision making, ability, advanced movement and technical skill. What is new however, with the current interest in cognitive research, is that there may also be marked differences between players in their visual perception, pattern recognition and movement anticipation skills.
Andre Roca’s most recent work uses video sequences of offensive and defensive play, shown on a life size screen to a player wearing eye tracking glasses and asked to verbally report their thinking, as the game develops. As maybe expected the research confirms that skilled players show more accurate anticipation and decision making skills than the less skilled players, their superior performance being underpinned by differences in both their eye search behaviors and the corresponding thought processes. Their perceptual-cognitive skills included the enhanced ability to pick up early visual information from an opponent or teammate’s body movements, the ability to recognise familiarity and structure in an evolving pattern of play and the ability to second guess the likelihood of a set movement in a given situation.
What is even more interesting is that the difference between skilled and less skilled players was found to be far more marked when the passage of play is far away from the player. The skilled football players being aware of, and reading the movement of, both home and opposition players as well as the available space, in all areas of the pitch. Less skilled players spent more time looking at the player in possession of the ball and the players in the area nearest to them.
Does this mean that you need good distance vision to be an elite player?
Dr Roca’s research was looking at skill identification and acquisition rather than talent identification or visual acuity but there is considerable evidence that there may be benefit in having a high level of dynamic visual acuity if you want to be successful in elite sport. Better accuracy of vision has been found in elite basketball, baseball, softball, volleyball, hockey, cricket and tennis players, when compared to less successful players and top motor-racing drivers have also been shown to have superior visual performance when compared to non-racing but matched controls. In many cases the level of visual acuity has been found to be greater than the 20:20 that we think of as perfect.
As well as dynamic and stationary visual acuity and depth vision, colour vision may also be important for elite level athletes. A research optometrist called Valerie Kennelly has been looking at the effect of colour blindness in Gaelic Football. She has found that with 8% of men being colour blind and around 7% of club players, only 2% of elite players confuse red and green. In the Gaelic Football League 16 of the 34 teams have strips that are red, green, maroon or a combination of these colours, making it much harder for a colour blind player to distinguish home from away players or the movement of those players, particularly when they are far away.
Can vision be improved ?
Poor stationary visual acuity, as tested in a normal eye test can be improved by corrective glasses or contact lenses. Aspiring athletes may wish to have contact lenses even when their vision is near perfect and an optometrist would not normally recommend them as being necessary.
It is thought that dynamic visual acuity can be trained and there is a lot of discussion in the research as to whether successful athletes have better vision due to their sport or are better at the sport due to their vision. Despite this uncertainty both here and in America an increasing number of Elite Sports Research Centres are offering visual or brain training.
In his research Dr Roca’s conclusion is that the cognitive skills he shows are largely learnt. By studying the diaries of players and using historic questionnaires, he has found that the key to the development of elite vision or perception skills, is the amount of time his elite individuals had spent fooling around with a football. Players who had the highest level of game perception, pattern recognition and anticipation, had also spent the greatest amounts of time in unstructured play, done purely for fun.
Roca, A., Williams, A. M., & Ford, P. R. (2013). Capturing and testing perceptual-cognitive expertise: A comparison of stationary and movement response methods. Behavior Research Methods, n/a. DOI: 10.3758/s13428-013-0359-5
Roca, A., Ford, P. R., McRobert, A. P., & Williams, A. M. (2013). Perceptual-cognitive skills and their interaction as a function of task constraints in soccer. Journal of Sport & Exercise Psychology, 35, 144-155.
Roca, A., Ford, P. R., & Williams, A. M. (2013). The processes underlying ‘game intelligence’ skills in soccer players. In H. Nunome, B. Drust, & B. Dawson (Eds.), Science and Football VII (pp. 255-260). London, UK: Routledge.
Roca, A., Williams, A. M., & Ford, P. R. (2012). Developmental activities and the acquisition of superior anticipation and decision making in soccer players. Journal of Sports Sciences, 30, 1643-1652.