How we learn and refine motor skills and how we prevent performance breakdown in pressurised or demanding circumstances are among the most important questions within sport psychology and skill acquisition.  The development of lightweight eye tracking technology has significantly advanced our understanding of what individuals fixate and attend to while performing sport skills. A growing body of evidence suggests that how gaze is controlled is critical for skills requiring precise cue selection, optimal timing and the ability to focus for long durations under extreme performance conditions [1]. Such research suggests that in order to be successful at aiming to a target, the final fixation made by a performer must not only be located on the target, but must also be of a long enough duration to ensure accuracy. This particular gaze strategy, termed the quiet eye (QE; [2]), has been shown to be indicative of superior performance in a variety of sporting tasks (see Vine et al., 2012 [3] for a recent review). Indeed, since its conception in 1996 over 70 articles have been published probing the role that the QE plays in underpinning skilled performance.

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The Quiet eye:

The QE is defined for a given motor task as the final fixation or tracking gaze directed to a single location or object in the visuomotor work-space within 3degrees of visual angle (or less) for a minimum of 100 ms [4]. The onset of the QE occurs before the critical phase of the motor task and the offset occurs when the final fixation deviates off the target for more than 100 ms. The QE has been shown to underpin successful performance, differentiating both expertise (inter-individual) and proficiency (intra-individual), with experts and successful sporting attempts characterised by longer QE durations [5].

Quiet eye training:

Perhaps of most interest to applied sport and performance psychologists is the body of evidence emerging which shows that the QE is a perceptual-cognitive skill that can be trained. The QE is not just a by-product of expertise, but appears to be an important mediator of skilful performance. QE training involves guiding decisions about where and when to fixate areas of interest within the visuomotor work-space whilst performing a skill. Using video modelling and verbal feedback, performers are guided to develop the same QE focus and visual control as expert performers. Recent studies examining the utility of QE training among a skilled populations have been undertaken in shotgun shooting [6], football penalty taking [7] and golf putting [8].

In Causer et al.’s (2011) study [6], 20 international level skeet shooters were assigned to either a QE trained or control group and tested before and after an 8-week intervention. The QE trained group were shown video feedback oftheir eye movements and taught a pre-shot routine aimed at lengthening their QE. After training, the QE trained group had a significantly earlier onset of QE on the clay, tracked it for longer and demonstrated significantly improved performance, while the control group revealed no significant changes in QE or performance.

Vine et al. (2011 [8]) revealed similar benefits for a brief (1 hour) QE training intervention for low handicap (mean = 2.4) golfers. Again, relative increases in QE and performance in a laboratory-based putting task were found, compared with a control group. The benefits also transferred to the competition environment with the QE trained golfers revealing a relative improvement in golf putting performance on the course; taking 1.92 fewer putts per round and holing 5% more putts from 6 to 10feet following the training.

QE training has also been shown to  help novices to acquire targeting skills more quickly than when taught using ‘typical’ technical instructions. Vine and Wilson [9,10] examined the effect of QE training on the gaze control and performance of novice participants performing golf putts and basketball free throws, respectively. In both studies, two groups of novices, QE trained and control (technique focused instructions), performed 360 acquisition trials. Learning was assessed using retention tests, where no guidance or instructions were provided. In both studies, the QE trained group demonstrated better performance than their control group counterparts in these retention tests (although this advantage only approached significance in the 2010 golf putting study). The control groups also improved performance over the training period (and increased their QE durations significantly), however, QE training promoted a longer and more expert-like QE, resulting in a level of performance that was further along the learning curve.

Anxiety and the QE:

As top level sport is characterised by a demand to perform at peak levels in anxiety-provoking situations, research has also examined how anxiety causes a disruption to attentional control leading to degradation in task performance (see Wilson, 2012 [11]). As a result, several studies have revealed that the QE may be a useful index of optimal attentional control in targeting tasks, and sensitive to the influence of increased anxiety [12, 13]. The aforementioned studies (e.g. by Vine and Wilson [9, 10], Vine et al., 2011 [8]) have included experimental manipulations of anxiety, to determine any additional benefits of QE training upon performance in an anxiety provoking environment. The authors found that control groups displayed significantly shorter QE durations and performed significantly worse in pressure tests, compared with retention tests, whilst QE trained groups maintained effective QE durations and performance. Thus, the results indicate that QE training acted to protect performers from the adverse effects of anxiety upon attentional control and performance by maintaining effective QE durations.

Future research:

On-going research is aiming to pinpoint the exact cognitive and neurological processes which may explain the benefits of a QE and QE training. Recent research by Vine et al., 2013 [14] and Klostermann et al., 2013 [15] used strict experimental manipulations to examine some of the key characteristics of the QE (i.e. location, duration and timing). Other work by Vine et al., in press [16] and Wood et al., 2012 [17] has examined psychological explanations for the benefits of QE training such as increased perceptions of control and a more implicit form of learning.

QE and QE training interventions are receiving increasing attention from domains outside of sport in which motor skills must be learnt and then performed under pressure. Wilson and colleagues [18] have examined the QE of high and low motor coordination children, to examine whether the QE may explain differences in motor skill learning and performance.  Vickers and Lewinski [19] examined the QE durations of experienced and novice police fire arms officers, and found that increased QE durations were associated with improved weapon accuracy. Finally, a body of work by Wilson, Vine and colleagues [20, 21] utilised eye tracking technology and QE theory to examine the gaze behaviours of laparoscopic surgeons. In a series of studies gaze training interventions were examined in terms of their benefits for skill acquisition, robustness under pressure (dual tasking) and the retention and transfer of surgical skills [22, 23].

The QE variable provides an interesting framework to examine perceptual cognitive expertise in motor skill acquisition and performance. The body of evidence to support QE theory is growing in quantity, is developing in quality and is expanding into new and interesting areas.

Dr Sam Vine is an Experimental Psychologist based in the Sport and health sciences department at the University of Exeter:

Email: s.j.vine@exeter.ac.uk

Twitter: @samueljamesvine

ReferencesShow all

[1] Vickers, J. N. (2011). Mind over muscle: The role of gaze control, spatial cognition, and the quiet eye in motor expertise. Cognitive Processing, 12, 219-222.

[2] Vickers JN. Visual control when aiming at a far target. J Exp Psychol Human. 1996; 22: 342- 54.

[3] Vine SJ, Moore LJ, Wilson MR (2012). Quiet eye training: The acquisition, refinement and resilient performance of targeting skills. Eur J Sport Sci. doi:10.1080/17461391.2012.683815.

[4] Vickers, J. N., & Williams, A. M. (2007). Performing under pressure: The effects of physiological arousal, cognitive anxiety, and gaze control in biathlon. Journal of Motor Behaviour, 39, 381-394.

[5] Mann, D. T. Y., Williams, A. M., Ward, P., & Janelle, C. M. (2007). Perceptual-cognitive expertise in sport: A meta analysis. Journal of Sport & Exercise Psychology, 29, 457-478.

[6] Causer, J., Holmes, P. S., & Williams, A. M. (2011). Quiet eye training in a visuomotor control task. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, 43, 1042-1049.

[7] Wood, G., & Wilson, M. R. (2011). Quiet-eye training for soccer penalty kicks. Cognitive Processing, 12, 257-266.

[8] Vine SJ, Moore LJ, Wilson MR (2011). Quiet eye training facilitates competitive putting performance in elite golfers. Frontiers in Psychology, doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2011.00008.

[9] Vine SJ, Wilson MR (2010). Quiet eye training: Effects on learning and performance under pressure. J Appl Sport Psychol; 22: 361-76.

[10] Vine SJ, Wilson MR (2011). The influence of quiet eye training and pressure on attention and visuomotorcontrol. Acta Psychol; 136: 340-6.

[11] Wilson, M. R. (2012). Anxiety: Attention, the brain, the body and performance. In S. Murphy (Ed.), Handbook on sport and performance psychology (pp. 173-190). New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

[12] Wilson, M. R., Vine, S. J., & Wood, G. (2009). The influence of anxiety on visual attentional control in basketball free throw shooting. Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 31, 152-168.

[13] Causer, J., Holmes, P. S., Smith, N. C., & Williams, A. M. (2011). Anxiety, movement kinematics, and visual attention in elite-level performers. Emotion, 11, 595-602.

[14] Vine, S.J., Lee, D., Moore, L.J., & Wilson, M.R, (2013) Quiet eye and choking: Online control breaks down at the point of performance failure. Medicine and Science in Sport & Exercise, 45(10):1988-94.

[15] Klostermann, A., Kredel, Ralf & Hossner, EJ. (2013). The “quiet eye” and motor performance: Task demands matter! Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance, 39(5), 1270-1278.

[16] Vine, S.J; Moore, L., Cooke, A., Macintyre, D., Ring, C., & Wilson, M. (in press). QE training; a means to implicit motor learning. International Journal Sport Psychology.

[17] Wood, G., & Wilson, M.R. (2012). Quiet-eye training, perceived control and performing under pressure. Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 13, 721–728.

[18] Wilson, M., Miles, C., Vine, S.J., & Vickers, J.N. (2013). Quiet Eye Distinguishes Children of High and Low Motor Coordination Abilities. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise. 45(6):1144-51.

[19] Vickers, J. N., & Lewinski, W. (2012). Performing under pressure: Gaze control, decision making and shooting performance of elite and rookie police officers. Human Movement Science, 31(1), 101-117.

[20] Wilson, M.R., McGrath, J., Vine, S.J., Brewer, J., Defriend, D, and Masters, R.S.W. (2010). Psychomotor control in a virtual laparoscopic surgery training environment: Gaze control parameters differentiate novices from experts. Surgical Endoscopy, 24(10). 2458.

[21] Wilson, M.R., McGrath, J., Vine, S.J., Brewer, J., Defriend, D. & Masters, R.S.W. (2011). Perceptual impairment and visuomotor control in virtual laparoscopic surgery. Surgical Endoscopy. 25:2268–2274.

[22] Vine, S.J., Masters, R.S.W., McGrath, J.S., Bright, E., & Wilson, R.M. (2012). Cheating experience: Guiding novices to adopt the gaze strategies of experts expedites technical laparoscopic skill learning. Surgery, 152(1), 32-40.

[23] Vine, S.J., Chaytor, R.J., McGrath, J.S., Masters, R.S.W., & Wilson. M.R. (2013). Gaze training improves the retention and transfer of laparoscopic technical skills in novices. Surgical Endoscopy. 27 (9), 3205-3213.