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Thursday, May 24, 2007

Sixth Sense Can Be Taught?

Thanks to new technology, the seemingly uncanny ability of many top athletes to anticipate opponents’ and teammates’ maneuvers might now be taught to average competitors. Often, the best players in a sport aren’t the fittest or strongest, but those with “field vision” - knowledge of where teammates are at all times, where the ball is headed and what opponents plan to do. Such talent has long been assumed to be innate, and impossible to teach, reports Jennifer Kahn in Wired (no link available). But now, a movement in sports training aims to use technology to show ordinary athletes how to think like superstars.

Damian Farrow, a scientist at the Australian Institute of Sport outside Canberra, relies on a host of gadgets to identify how elite athletes operate. One device that tracks where players’ eyes turn during a game showed that the best players continually dart their eyes around the field, while those who make poor passing decisions focus for too long on certain targets.

By tracking vision in another way, he found that top tennis players unconsciously read their opponents’ body language a third of a second before the ball is hit to predict where a serve is headed. Mr. Farrow says not all of the new approaches being used in professional and amateur sports are effective. In particular, he is dismissive of an approach used by some Major League Baseball teams in which players are instructed to increase the speed of their responses to a computer game to improve their field vision. Elite and average athletes perform equally well on the test, he says, so whatever skill it develops probably isn’t useful in baseball.

Mr. Farrow also criticizes the emphasis on many elite youth sports academies place on structured drills. Unstructured play can be the best way for young players to develop perceptual skill that will pay off down the road, he says. “What do we do instead? We put children in regimented … programs, where their perceptual abilities are corralled and limited.
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