Monday, November 4, 2013

The Impact of Deception and Disguise on the Skill of Anticipation in Beach Volleyball

The skill of anticipation is an important component of expertise in sports.  The delay occasioned by our perceptual system while processing information means athletes in fast-moving sports need to make advance[1] predictive judgments in order to prepare and execute appropriate motor responses to their opponent's tactics.[2] 

The dynamics of beach volleyball and the conditions in which it is played make early reads and motoric preparation essential if an athlete is to have success.  The speed at which the ball is attacked,[3] the size of the area to be defended,[4] and conditions that impair players' vision[5], slow their foot-speed[6], and heavily tax their energy systems,[7] combine to place a premium on the ability to predict behavior from the earliest onset of movement.  Anticipation under pressure is one of the premier skills distinguishing elite from novice beach volleyball athletes.

Perceptual Motor Skills

One of the ways skilled athletes are able to make correct predictions is through advance cue utilization -- a process of using information from an opponent’s bodily movements to anticipate what she is likely to do.[8]  An attacking hand behind the head, a slowed approach, an un-raised elbow, even a blocker's stance, can have meaning to an experienced opponent and betray the intent of the athlete whose conduct is on display.
As it turns out, skilled athletes regularly outperform novices in anticipating developing actions because skilled athletes are better at utilizing information gleaned from their opponents.[9]  And it's not that elite performers have superior vision or even advanced reaction times that explain their predictive abilities.[10]  Rather, experts make better predictions because they’re able to draw more meaning from the body kinematics of other players in the game.[11]. 
So if experts are better at reading the cues of others players does that advantage extend to discriminating opponent's deceptive intentions?

Despite the ubiquity of deception in sports, and its primacy as a tactic in beach volleyball, the impact of deception on the anticipatory skills of advanced athletes has only recently garnered scientific attention. 
Deception in Sports

Athletes regularly use deceptive movement for competitive advantage.  Tactical deception takes two basic forms – attempts made by players to hide information (disguise) and attempts made by players to offer false information (deception).[12] The former is used to delay an opponent’s decision by hiding cues of the actor’s intent.  The latter is aimed at providing deliberately false cues to induce an erroneous response.

The Art of Deception in Beach Volleyball

If deception is prevalent in sports it is everywhere on the beach.  Blockers lean one way and dive another; defenders feign covering the cross-court and run to the line; and attackers deliberately approach one direction and then hit the other way.  Even an early position in serve receive can be a ploy to induce a desired serve location.  Beach volleyball players regularly use their bodies as instruments of deception by feigning their intent through deliberately false cues.[13]

So all of this tactical deception returns us to an important question.  Are skilled athletes more or less susceptible to deception than their less skilled counterparts?

It might be predicted that the experienced athletes’ superiority in utilizing advance cues extends to their ability to detect deception in an opponent.  In this view, elite players would be less susceptible to deception and respond better to it than novices.  On the other hand, experts could be more susceptible than novices because novices draw less meaning from kinematics and so may suffer less when they are disguised or feigned.

With important implications for technical and tactical training, the impact of deception on anticipation in beach volleyball is a topic worthy of considerable attention and will further be explored in subsequent parts.

Part II will summarize the research in this area and apply it to common tactics in beach volleyball.  Part III will examine the role of motor and perceptual skill in the underlying process of detecting deception from the cues of opponents.  It is expected that greater knowledge of how anticipatory judgments are made in the sport will assist coaches to teach tactics for competitive advantage.