Federer and Nadal Can See the Difference

Watching Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal battle it out in the French Open final and now again in the Wimbledon final, I started thinking more about the interceptive timing task requirements of each of their visuomotor systems... yeah, right. C'mon, I just needed a good opening line for this post.

However, other than a 120 mph tennis serve, take a second to think about all of the different sports that send an object flying at you at very high speeds that you not only have to see, but also estimate the speed of the object, the movement of the object and what you want to do with the object once it gets to you.

Some examples are:
- a hockey puck at a goalie (70-100 mph)
- a baseball pitch at a batter (70-100 mph)
- a soccer ball kicked at a keeper (60-90 mph)

Previously, we took a look at this in baseball and in soccer and also discussed the different types of visual skills in sports. There, we broke it down into three categories:

- Targeting tasks
- Interceptive timing tasks
- Tactical decision making tasks

The second category, interceptive timing tasks, deals with the examples above; stuff coming at you fast and you need to react. There are three levels of response that take an increasing level of brainpower.

First, there is a basic reaction, also known as optometric reaction. In other words, "see it and get out of the way". Next, there is a perceptual reaction, meaning you actually can identify the object coming at you and can put it in some context (i.e. that is a tennis ball coming at you and not a bird swooping out of the sky).

Finally, there is a cognitive reaction, meaning you know what is coming at you and you have a plan of what to do with it (i.e. return the ball with top-spin down the right line). This cognitive skill is usually sport-specific and learned over years of tactical training. Obviously, for professional tennis players, they are at the expert cognitive stage and have a plan for most shots. Federer's problem was that Nadal had better plans.

But, in order to reach that cognitive stage, they first need to have excellent optometric and perceptual skills. Can those skills be trained? Or are the best tennis players born with naturally better abilities? Did their training make them better tennis players or are they better players because of some natural skills?

Leila Overney and her team at the Brain Mind Institute of Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne (EPFL) recently studied whether expert tennis players have better visual perception abilities than other athletes and non-tennis players. Typically, motor skill research compares experts to non-experts and tries to deduce what the experts are doing differently to excel.

In this study, an additional category was added. Overney wanted to see if the perceptual skills of the tennis players were significantly more advanced than athletes of a similar fitness level, (in this case triathletes), to eliminate the variable of "fitness", and also more advanced than novice tennis players (the typical comparison). To eliminate the cognitive knowledge difference between the groups, she used seven non-sport specific visual tests. Please see the actual study for details of all the tests.

The bottom line of the results was that certain motion detection and speed discrimination skills were better in the tennis players (in other words, being able to track a ball coming at you and its movement side to side).

So, the expert tennis players were better at tracking balls coming at them than triathletes and non-tennis players.... seems pretty obvious(!) But, these results are a first step to answering the question of "can these skills be trained"? We see that there is, indeed, a difference in ability level between expert players and athletes that are in similar shape and competitive spirit. Now, the question becomes, "how did these tennis players acquire a higher level of perception skill"? Was it "nature or nurture", "genetically gifted or trained through practice"?

Source: Overney, L.S., Blanke, O., Herzog, M.H., Burr, D.C. (2008). Enhanced Temporal but Not Attentional Processing in Expert Tennis Players. PLoS ONE, 3(6), e2380. DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0002380
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