How to Cheat Learning and Perform Under Pressure
Traditionally, learning a new skill or even training one you already have involves a lot of technical instruction and movement practice. But how often do you practice perceptual skills such as your gaze strategy?
Last week’s post introduced the idea that perceptual skill is a critical element of movement competence. In essence, your perceptual skill is how you read the environment and pick up information that will help you choose and execute the best response. The importance of vision is paramount to this process in most sport and exercise skills.
As with people with low vs high motor coordination, experts and novices in a sport skill also have marked differences in their gaze behaviour. We can study what experts do differently, and use this to guide our learning of perceptual skill.
Some key differences between experts and novices when performing a skill:
Experts have built up a wealth of knowledge from years of experience, which helps them anticipate, recognise and focus their gaze on the important information straight away. Novices on the other hand cannot rule out irrelevant information, so they have to search for clues or make guesses about how they need to react. This costs valuable time, requires more mental processing power, and leads to mistakes or missed information.
Efficient perceptual skill creates better anticipation, better decision making, faster reactions, more accurate responses and a better awareness of the situation.
For example, elite tennis players are able to identify subtle changes within an opponent’s action that gives them clues about the likely direction and spin of a serve before it’s been hit. Elite footballers ignore a multitude of irrelevant information in their field of vision, and instead use efficient scan paths between players to help them recognise patterns of play and different formations. Elite goalkeepers know exactly which regions of a striker’s body they must look at (and when!) to gain the most information about the likely direction of a shot.
What about performance differences?
A difference in gaze behaviour is also seen in successful vs unsuccessful attempts within the same individual – successful attempts generally involve more ‘expert-like’ gaze behaviours, whereas when gaze becomes less efficient (e.g. more fixations of a shorter duration), successful performances become less likely.
We discussed a gaze strategy called the Quiet Eye (QE) last week - the QE is the final visual fixation on an object or target before the onset of a movement. I bring this up because the QE is a simple yet highly efficient gaze strategy that follows the patterns of expertise (a single, longer fixation on highly relevant object/target). A longer QE period is also reliably associated with expertise and successful performances.
For example, successful golf putts are characterised by longer QE fixations on the hole right before the shot is played. A study by Vine and colleagues showed that the QE duration actually predicted 43% of the variance in putting performance in elite golfers (you’d better give me a shout if you want to know more about improving your short game!)
So how do we cheat learning?
Knowing what experts do differently, allows us to adapt how we learn. We can teach people to mimic the gaze strategies of experts, to help them optimise their perceptual skill. By simply increasing a novice’s QE duration right before a movement, we improve their performances far quicker than when we teach technique alone. We are effectively helping novices ‘cheat’ the years of practice and trial and error by just giving them the answer – isn’t that a lot easier?!
The reason why simply teaching someone to look a target for a little longer, or locate and track an object earlier (longer QE's), is to allow more time to see and process information. Holding your gaze on a target for just half a second longer affords your senses and brain extra time to better calculate distance, speed, size, windage, etc, etc. Your brain can then use this extra information to make better predictions and more detailed plans about how to adjust and optimise your movements. All this happens subconsciously and in a split second, but it really makes a difference to your skill performance.
Obviously, learning technique is important for sports skills, and sooner or later a novice will need to learn it in more detail. However, when they are also taught to see the right information at the right time, their movements conform to performing the skill in more optimal ways – they naturally adopt the more accurate movements and better technique as a result of their gaze behaviour - its a win-win!
There is another crucial benefit to adding in perceptual training; QE training helps both novice and expert athletes perform better under pressure…
Gaze behaviour and pressure
Pressure to perform can be debilitating for experts and novices alike. During the study of eye movements in sports tasks, researchers found that anxiety commonly results in less efficient gaze behaviour. Even elite performers demonstrate shorter and more scattered visual fixations, and shorter QE durations when put under pressure.
However, if a performer is trained to adopt the gaze strategy of an expert this seems to protect them better from the effects of pressure and anxiety. If you can maintain your optimal gaze strategy, your movements will follow suit. Again, I’m going to use the QE as an example of this:
A study by Harle & Vickers (2001) taught the QE strategy with a team of near elite basketball players. This training increased the player’s QE durations by around half a second (500ms) which saw an immediate 12% scoring improvement. Critically, the team’s competitive (pressurised) free-throw percentages also increased by 22.6% after two seasons – that’s huge!!
The golf putting study by Vine and colleagues (2011) that I mentioned earlier also produced some amazing results – QE trained golfers performed significantly better than non-QE trained players in a pressurised putting competition. Furthermore, the QE trained golfers also transferred their skills onto the course, using 2 fewer putts per round compared to their pre-training levels.
These studies show that by teaching ‘expert’ gaze behaviours to participants, even when they are near elite players themselves, this improves accuracy and performance levels in practice and crucially under competition pressure.
Perceptual skill is a differentiator between experts and novices in a huge number of skills. Experts use more efficient gaze strategies to help them extract the maximum amount of information from relevant objects, targets and cues. These efficient gaze strategies have been learned through years of experience and practice.
Successful performances have also been associated with more efficient gaze strategies. For example, longer QE periods mean a greater a chance of success, shorter QE periods mean success is less likely, even in elite performers.
We can train people to mimic the gaze behaviours of experts to ‘cheat’ the learning process. This training method is more effective than traditional technique training instructions alone. Furthermore, QE training makes an individual more robust to the effects of performance pressure. If an individual can maintain their QE duration when experiencing anxiety, they will likely maintain their performance too.