If you were to ask a golfer coming off the 18th green following their best round of golf how they perceived the course, they might describe the fairways and greens as being ‘as large as an ocean’ and liken the hole to a ‘bucket’. Whereas if you ask a golfer coming off the 18th after hitting a below par (…pun intended) score, they might describe the hole being ‘as small as a pea’.
Embodied cognition argues that our motor system influences our cognition and perceptions, just as our cognitions influence our bodily actions. As seen in the first example, this could be both facilitative and debilitative to performance, self-efficacy and motivation.
Perceiving the environment does not rely on the stimuli visible to the naked eye alone. It also depends on the athlete current intention to perform a task. For example, Witt, Proffitt, and Epstein (2004) demonstrated that as effort of throwing a ball increases, perceived distance to a target decrease. This means that someone who handled a lighter ball perceived the target as closer and someone who handled a heavier ball perceived the target as further away.
Feeling the light weight of a ball automatically triggers recollections of events that were successful. Therefore an improved recollection of a previously successful event can lead to an athlete to gain a heightened initial intention to perform at a high level. This means professional athletes who have successfully practised several difficult skills in different situations will lead to more positive anticipation and intentions. This means well skilled athlete may perceive certain tasks as easier compared to amateur athletes.
Positive relationships between perception and performance have previously been found. In baseball, Witt and Proffitt (2005) found that players with higher batting averages perceived the baseball as being larger than average compared to those who had a lower batting average. Because the players are aware that they are hitting well, the perceive effort of performing the task of hitting the ball decreases.
Similarly, Witt and Dorsch (2009) found that American Football Kickers perceived the goals posts width and height differently depending on the type of performance. For example, kickers who missed short perceived the cross bar as being further off the ground. If the kicker made the distance but missed left or right, they perceived the uprights as being closer together. Kickers with very high completion rates perceived the cross bar closer to the ground and wider than they actually are.
Expanding further, Witt, Linkenauger, Bakdash, and Proffitt (2008) showed that golfers who played better judged the hole to be bigger than the golfers who played poorly. The perceived hole size correlated with putting performance on the last hole but not with overall performance on the last hole. This therefore suggests that these effects are specific to the relevant task and better subsequent putting performance can increase hole size perception. Follow up tests demonstrated that easier conditions (i.e. short putts) lead to increased performance and therefore larger hole perception. this demonstrated that performing easier tasks leads to an increased or reinforced intent to perform the action optimally with minimal effort on cognition.
Now, how can we utilise embodied cognition to put the odds in our favour? Before having to perform, every or at least most athletes go through a well thought out pre-performance routine. This may come in the form of practicing the task around an hour before competition. To increase perceived ease of a task, errors have to be reduced. Using archery as an example, reducing errors can be done by first shooting at the target from a close distance then moving steadily away from the target. Reducing errors from the start gives the illusion of increased performance through constant positive feedback.
A word of caution, reducing errors does not necessarily improve performance when learning and practicing. This error-reduced intervention should ideally be used shortly before competition to reinforce motor skills that can lead to improved coping under pressure. To reinforce this point, for more comprehensive learning and practice away from competition, deliberate practice is need.