Reaching Olympic Heights – Insights on Sports Performance from Psychological Science

The 2012 Olympics in London are about to start, and millions around the world will admire and ponder the mysteries of athletic performance. Psychological scientists are no exception. Researchers have examined how visual illusions improve sports performance, how attitudes and beliefs about competence determine performance and what exactly happens when we indulge in silly sports rituals.  These and other pieces of cutting edge research can be found in the journals published by the Association for Psychological Science.

Learned Predictiveness Speeds Visual Processing

You’ve got to pass the ball and you see a player who almost always makes the goal, one who never makes the goal and one who sometimes does and sometimes doesn’t. Psychological science research suggests that you will more quickly recognize the face of the consistent players whether they’re good or bad, than the player who is inconsistent. A study from Bangor University in the UK, published in Psychological Science, paired faces and gains or losses. If a face was strongly linked to either winning or losing, it was recognized much more quickly than the face that wasn’t strongly associated with either success or failure. Researchers concluded that this means the relative value of an outcome, whether it was positive or negative, made a far less powerful impression on our visual consciousness than our ability to learn how to predict the action. And our ability to learn how to predict the outcome, our ability to consolidate a pattern, occurred very early on in terms of visual processing.

Learned Predictiveness Speeds Visual Processing
Psychological Science April 2012
Jane E. Raymond, Professor of Experimental Consumer Psychology, Bangor University, UK

Don’t Give Yourself a Pep Talk, Just Follow Your Own Instructions

If you catch yourself saying “you can do this!” when you’re tackling a fine movement, be sure to spell it out. Researchers made distinctions between motivational talk, in which participants would tell themselves “Let’s go!” or “I can do it!” as opposed to instructional self talk. In this version, participants’ silent conversations with themselves would focus on a specific task like “Focus”, or “Raise the elbow” or “Follow through.” They found that pumping yourself up for a task by using motivation was not as effective as repeating the instructions to yourself, .

After reviewing  32 studies on the topic, researchers from the University of Thessaly in Greece – a region that knows something about sports competitions – honed the self talk distinctions even more precisely. They suggested that self-talk can help by enhancing focus, increasing confidence, regulating effort, controlling cognitive and emotional reactions, and triggering automatic execution of the task.  When tasks involved relatively fine motor demands, and new, compared with well-learned, tasks. Instructional self-talk was more effective for fine tasks than was motivational self-talk; moreover, instructional self-talk was more effective for fine tasks rather than gross tasks.

Self-Talk and Sports Performance: A Meta-Analysis
Perspectives on Psychological Science July 2011
Antonis Hatzigeorgiadis, Department of Physical Education and Sport Sciences, University of Thessaly, Greece —

Silly Sports Rituals? Think Again

If you wear lucky underwear, grow a playoff beard, listen to pre-game pump-up jams, do the Haka dance or a slow clap, the science shows that observing these rituals will actually help you improve your game.  Research published in Psychological Science demonstrated that activating superstitions by either saying something—like break a leg or keep your fingers crossed– or using a personal lucky charm really does lead to  improved performance in golfing, memory games, anagrams and motor dexterity.  Researchers found that the lucky charms help to boost our ability to believe that we can master a certain task. That belief does wonders to help us set higher goals, work more persistently and succeed.  But if you don’t believe in luck, carrying that rabbit’s foot won’t help you.

Keep Your Fingers Crossed!: How Superstition Improves Performance.
Psychological Science, July 2010
Lysann Damisch, University of Cologne —

Get Me Out of This Slump! Visual Illusions Improve Sports Performance

One way to sink that put, make the free throw, hit the bull’s eye with the arrow, is to think the target is bigger than it really is. That’s the surprising conclusion of a study in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.

In 2005, psychological scientist and competitive athelete Jessi Witt of Purdue University played on the U.S. National Ultimate Frisbee team, which won the gold medal at the World Games. Her interest in sports extended to her professional work and in this study, she and her co-authors explored visual perception and sports performance. When athletes look directly at the target without moving their eyes around—a pattern known as the Quiet Eye—they make more free throws, putts or other tasks. Can manipulating the size of the target affect performance? Thirty six participants putted to two physically different sized holes, but with one, a projector distorted the hole to make it look larger. The illusion worked. Putters made their mark more successfully to the perceptually bigger hole. One possible explanation is that a target that seemed to look larger increased the confidence of the putters, and confidence improves performance.

Get Me Out of This Slump! Visual Illusions Improve Sports Performance
Psychological Science, April, 2012
Jessica K. Witt, Purdue University —

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