Monday, November 5, 2012

Perception and Motor Skill in Reading Shot Location in Beach Volleyball - Parts I & II

Elite sports performers possess the twin abilities to repeatedly execute complex actions and anticipate the behavior of other players.  Indeed, anticipatory skill is one of the most clearly established variables distinguishing highly successful athletes from their less accomplished counterparts.

In the sport of volleyball, anticipation is a key ingredient in successful performance.   Blockers who can read setter and hitter intentions, passers who can read servers and ball flight, and defenders who can anticipate shot speed, depth and direction all have an advantage over players whose anticipatory skills are less developed.

The ability to read is likewise critical to success in the beach game.  With more court to cover and fewer teammates to help, defensive success in beach volleyball is inextricably intertwined with the ability to anticipate an opponent’s offensive intentions.   The growing dynamics of beach volleyball offenses, fewer blockers at the net compared to indoors and a playing surface that constrains small area quickness highlight the need for beach defenders to develop acute reading abilities.

How Do Great Readers Anticipate?

We’ve all seen volleyball players who just seem to know where the ball is going.  So how did they do it, and why are some athletes better than others in figuring out their opponents?  As it turns out, athletes with superior reading abilities do some rather than unique things that less capable readers do not. 

Principles garnered from scientific literature show that elite athletes: (1) make superior use of anticipatory visual cues, (2) utilize unique perceptual strategies, (3) employ efficient visual search patterns, (4) exhibit fast information-movement coupling (integrating vision and action); and (5) demonstrate superior pattern recognition ability.  Essentially, superior readers see the game in a very unique way from others -- but their perceptual expertise is not the whole story.

While we know that elite athletes are better than novices at reading, and we know a lot about how they do it, we still don’t know everything that contributes to the why?  Why is it that some athletes see the game so uniquely, extracting information from everything that’s going on, and thus are better able to accurately predict what is about to happen?  

Perceptual vs. Motor Experience

One of the most important questions scientists are studying to better understand the skill of reading is whether elite athlete’s motor skills in addition to their perceptual experience contribute to anticipation abilities.

There are two related accounts.

In one view, anticipation ability is a function of perceptual experience.  In this view, elite level athletes’ extensive exposure to the game enhances their sensitivity to the relevant cues that reveal what other players intend to do.

Another view says that athletes’ motor skills also have something to do with it.  This view links perceptual experience with motor experience by positing that skilled athlete’s motor experience contributes to their superior anticipation abilities. 

The developing idea is that athletes are perceptually better attuned to actions within their own motor repertoire.  Thus elite athletes are better at identifying the kinematic cues that indicate in others an intention to perform the same or similar skills the athletes themselves are capable of performing.[1]  Research comparing the anticipation ability of elite level athletes with those possessed primarily of perceptual experience alone (e.g., coaches, referees and fans) seems to support this view.   

For example a team of Italian researchers found that expert basketball players were able to predict the success of free throws more accurately and quickly than coaches and journalists who lacked playing experience.[2]  Evidence published this year similarly found that volleyball athletes were better able to utilize kinematic information to predict the fate of float serves more accurately than expert watchers and novices who did not play the game.[3]

Anticipation in Beach Volleyball Defense

A new study from researchers at the VU University in Amsterdam recently contributed to our understanding of elite reading ability in the sport of beach volleyball.

The researchers brought together beach volleyball players, coaches, referees and novices to compare their performances in a beach volleyball defensive reading experiment.  The VU team sought to isolate participants with perceptual experience (referees) from participants with perceptual and motor experience (players and coaches) in order better to understand the contributions of perceptual and motor experience to action anticipation in beach volleyball.

Based on current research suggesting that motor experience does contribute to anticipatory skills, the team predicted that the players and coaches would perform better than the referees and novices.  The research was published in the Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport.[4]

[Continued in Part II - click here]

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