“The ball looks small”; “the posts look narrow”; “the goal looks huge”.
These type of phrases are not uncommon in sport but it is strange to think that what we see in our environment may differ depending upon variables such as our body weight, age, fitness, previous performances and body shape. However, a relatively new, niche field of perception research has, and currently is, demonstrating how sport related factors, such as those mentioned above, influence what we perceive when we compete. This line of study is controversial since the findings appear to put existing, longstanding theories of perception (many of which state what we perceive is inflexible and consistent) into some doubt. However, the results are ongoing and consistent across the field, and hold some interesting implications for athletes. This article examines the research that concerns how recent sporting performance can change our perceptions of sporting components and suggests how this could be applied by athletes.
One of the pioneering pieces of research in the subject area was conducted by McBeath et al. (1993). McBeath found that when asked to estimate the size of a basketball hoop, participants drastically underestimated its diameter to the extent they believed was around twenty-five percent smaller than it really was. These findings were interpreted as being due to the difficulty of making a basketball shot and therefore the perceptual system adjusts since for performance, it’s better to believe the hoop is smaller than it actually is than larger. Wesp et al. (2004) furthered these findings by investigating how performance may influence our sporting perceptions. This research looked at whether a participant’s ability to throw a dart influences their perception of the size of the target. The results were found to be significant and thus laid the foundations for future performance-perception research.
More recently Witt and Proffitt (2005) found that softball players with a greater batting average perceive the ball to be larger. Furthermore, those with a more successful putting rate in golf perceive the hole to be significantly larger than those with lower success rates (Witt et al., 2008). Furthering these findings, Witt’s 2009 research demonstrated that when kicking for a field goal in American football, those that had missed more to the left or the right of the posts perceived them as narrower. Participants who didn’t kick far enough believed the crossbar was taller than in reality. This most recent piece of research suggests the performance-perception relationship is causal, with performance influencing perception as opposed to the other way around. Additionally, Witt’s research suggests that the phenomenon is not specific to one sport or one sporting component. It appears that many sporting goal-driven actions are susceptible to variations in perception due to previous performance.
So the question is, how can we take this research and apply it to our own sporting environments?
As you would expect, for most sporting components (golf holes, a softball, kicking posts etc.) the larger they are, the more beneficial it is for the athlete. It is likely that with perception of a larger golf-hole, for example, will come self-efficacy, confidence, relaxation etc. This is therefore why we intend to achieve this level of perception; to make elements of a goal as perceptually easy to achieve as possible.
Due to the nature of college and university research, most of the performances prior to the recording of perception were shortly or immediately before. Therefore we can apply these results directly which would suggest that pre-match training/warm ups should be conducted so each athlete feels they are performing well. For example, the kicker in rugby, if practicing penalties before the game could ensure they are making a desired percentage of their kicks. According to the research, this would ensure that when in the match, the posts look as large as possible.
If the desired level of performance is not obtained, it is suggested that the goal is simplified (such as taking the kicks from closer or in-front of the posts) before gradually adding difficulty in order for the athlete to achieve some success. Each athlete/player should feel their pre-match performance has been reasonable to excellent to benefit from enhanced perception towards goal-related components during performance.
These suggestions are applying the research quite literally, however, and it is most likely that good performance in the previous few competitions or matches combined with successful training will have the greatest perceptual benefits for athletes.
Overall, our previous performances may have an influence on how we perceive our environment, an effect which may be positive or adverse. It is therefore beneficial to any athlete to attempt to control this variable through pre-performance practice, ensuring they feel like they have played well in order to obtain the benefits that their perceptual system will provide.