On February 24th, 2016 we learned about

Unraveling how successful players perceive their performance

While an athletic activity may require strength, training and possibly even pain to achieve, some of the most amazing feats are accomplished with an impressive degree of grace. Despite the extreme forces involved in hitting a 90 miles-per-hour fastball, professional baseball players can make a homerun look easy. Oddly enough, some of that ease might be due to how the player perceives their own actions— in many cases, some of what they’re doing actually looks easy to them too.

Eye on the ball

A test of this concept was conducted with softball players right after completing a game. After batting, players were shown different size circles on a poster, and asked to pick which one most closely matched the ball they’d just swung at. Players who were more successful in their batting chose larger-than-life balls, while those that struck out didn’t see the ball as quite so large. Since may great baseball players have echoed similar sentiments, nobody is suggesting that these hitters are somehow unfamiliar with the size of their equipment. Instead, it seems that across a spectrum of physical activities, stronger players see their goals, be they holes on a golf course or field goals in football, as big, obvious and easy to reach. Part of their success may be that they didn’t see the interaction as a struggle.

These shifts in perception are known as action-specific perception. Depending on a person’s personal context, they might see a task as looking easier or harder than it really is. Unfortunately, it seems that these distortions don’t always give us a boost. Opposite the easy-to-hit targets athletes might see, people saddled with heavy backpacks will misjudge distances and inclines as being farther and steeper than reality, or than people carrying lighter loads. The question is then what is the cause, and what is the effect of this mechanism? Do we see targets as large and then hit them, or do we hit them because they seem too big to miss?

Measuring motor simulation

Understanding people’s perception is difficult, largely because we can’t know exactly what’s happening in their head. In the above illustrations, it’s likely that none of the participants realized that they were seeing the world inaccurately when performing their tasks, so it’s hard to get people to clearly explaining these experiences verbally. One piece of the puzzle is that when thinking about completing a task, our brains create a motor simulation to figure out how something will work. For instance, if asked about how a model hand will be oriented after twisting at the wrist, people wait to answer for the same amount of time it would take them to complete that same motion on their own hand. Accordingly, more difficult motions then take longer to imagine and respond to. This doesn’t answer the chicken-and-egg aspect of the oversized softballs, but it does show that there’s a psychological process that takes place as we plan our actions, and that these distortions are likely tied to these motor simulations.

Source: Ball Really Looks Bigger to Better Hitters by Steve Mirsky, 60-Second Science

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