Perceptual Skill: Learn to Read Your Environment
Performing a skill is not purely dependant on technique and practice. You also need to be able to effectively read the environment to pick up information that will enable you to choose and best execute the correct movement response. This is called perceptual skill.
I will write about the perceptual abilities of skilled performers next week, but in this post I want to particularly focus on the issues around poor perceptual skill - I worked in this field for many years, so it's a topic close to my heart!
Exceptionally poor movement (motor) skill is surprisingly common in both children and adults. It can affect every part of daily living but it has an especially negative impact on sport and exercise participation. Poor movement skill and coordination is also commonly linked with childhood obesity and low social skills.
Researchers have found that perceptual skill is key factor in low movement skill and coordination problems. Impairments in perceptual skill is also a key characteristic of a condition called Development Coordination Disorder (DCD) also commonly referred to as Dyspraxia.
Importance of Perceptual Skill
Perceptual skills are your ability to read an environment and plan an effective response. This is usually a rapid, subconscious process that happens in a continuous loop of reading, planning and updating your movements.
For example, when walking on a narrow or uneven surface, your eyes (and feet) send information about the surface to your brain. Your brain processes this information and makes a prediction about how to best move your body to compensate for the surface. As you walk, your senses keep reporting back more information, allowing your brain to continually adapt and update your walking gait and posture to best suit the surface.
Those with poor perceptual skills are unable to form a complete picture of their environment and how their body is moving and responding to it. This results in clumsy, jerky or awkward movements. A lack of confidence in movement skill often exacerbates the problem as this causes people to rush past the problem rather than using the information available to them.
Our research found that by improving the perceptual skill of both adults and children with poor coordination and low movement skill, we could significantly improve their skill performance. We compared perceptual training with normal technical instructions and found that even young children with severe movement coordination impairments (including those diagnosed with DCD) improved their ability to catch a ball when their perceptual skills were improved. This effect has also been shown in research for typically developing children, adults, and even people who've suffered from conditions like a stroke or Parkinson's Disease.
Perceptual Skill Training: Gaze Behaviour
Vision is the most important sense when it comes to performing most sports-based movement skills. Your eyes are constantly gathering a huge amount of information about your environment and relaying this to your brain.
Individuals with poor movement skills don’t use their eyes in the same way as those with average or high-level skill. Their gaze behaviour is more ‘scattered’ and disorganised, moving quickly from one object to the next without allowing adequate time to process the information.
This image shows a heat map of locations where the driver's eye fixates. The predominantly red areas are where their gaze rests for longer (fixations), the small green areas were only glanced at momentarily. We would expect a person with poor movement skill to have many more green areas as their gaze darts around the scene, rarely fixating on any one thing for long.
When attempting to track a moving object with their eyes (e.g when attempting to catch or hit a ball), those with poor movement skills start tracking the object later in its flight and tend to let their gaze ‘fall off’ the object sooner too. More skilful performers locate and visually track moving objects earlier and for much longer.
In aiming skills like golf putting, research has shown a final visual fixation on the target (the hole) for around 2 seconds before starting the movement significantly improves performance. This long, steady fixation is called the ‘Quiet Eye’. Novices and those with poor motor skills only tend to glance at their target for a few milliseconds, whilst many children with DCD often don’t even look at a target at all before they start to move.
Keeping your gaze fixed on moving or stationary objects for longer means your eyes can pick up more pertinent information. Performing this gaze behaviour before you move (known as the Quiet Eye) gives your brain more time to process that information and formulate a smooth, accurate and efficient movement.
A perceptual training method called Quiet Eye training focuses on directing an individual’s visual attention to the most important object(s) or target sooner and encourages them to watch or fixate on that object for a longer amount of time before starting a movement. In other words, we are trying to increase the Quiet Eye duration before the individual starts to move. This is done with simple instructions, such as “watch the ball closely”, or “look at the target whilst you say, “I am Tiger Woods!” whilst the individual is practicing.
Does it Work?
In a word, yes. Quiet Eye training has been successfully applied in research settings and real-world scenarios for many years now. Increasing an individual’s final fixation before starting their movement improves performance in aiming, intercepting, balancing and many other movement skills. Earlier and longer Quiet Eye durations can also make you more resilient to the effects of pressure - I'll get into that next week.
My research team performed several Quiet Eye training studies with children diagnosed with DCD, which is a severe impairment in movement coordination. In one study (linked down below), we randomly assigned the children into either a technical training group (focused on teaching and practicing technique such as hand placement) or a Quiet Eye training group (which added instructions on teaching and practicing earlier and longer Quiet Eye Durations). Both groups received 4 otherwise similar group training sessions focused on improving their catching skill.
Both groups improved their catching after the intervention, but the Quiet Eye trained children demonstrated a greater improvement. These children also showed much better perceptual skill measured via their gaze behaviour (including longer and earlier Quiet Eye fixations). The Quiet Eye trained children actually continued to improve their performances six weeks after the training sessions, meaning they became significantly better at catching than the group of children who only received technical training instructions.
This indicated that the perceptual training method was not only more effective, but it was also easier for children to understand and remember, thus helping them make long term improvements.
Poor movement skill is not uncommon in the UK population. Both children and adults with these impairments (including those with severe problems such as DCD) tend to shy away from exercise and sport-based activities, putting them at greater risk of obesity and poor social skills.
Children and adults with low motor skills display markedly poor perceptual skills – their gaze behaviour is often disorganised and scattered. This means they are unable to gather adequate information about their environment before they attempt to react to it. This is a significant contributor to jerky and inaccurate movements that characterise poor coordination.
Gaze training has been shown to improve perceptual skill in a huge number of tasks and fields. Specifically learning a gaze behaviour called the Quiet Eye (a long final visual fixation or tracking fixation on a relevant object before the onset of a movement) has been shown to improve motor skill execution and performance. Quiet Eye training is more effective than technical training methods to help children with the most severe coordination difficulties learn and retain challenging skills such as throwing and catching.
References Wood, G., Miles, C.A.L., Coyles, G., Alizadehkhaiyat, O., Vine, S.J., Vickers, J.N., Wilson, M.R. (2017). A randomised controlled trial of a group-based gaze training intervention for children with Developmental Coordination Disorder. PLoS One, 12(2): e017182, doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0171782
Miles, C.A.L., Wood, G., Vine, S.J., Vickers, J.N., Wilson, M.R. (2015). Quiet eye training aids the long-term learning of throwing and catching in children: Preliminary evidence for a predictive control strategy. European Journal of Sport Science, 17(1), 1-9.
Miles, C.A.L, Wood, G., Vine, S.J., Vickers, J.N., & Wilson, M.R. (2015). Quiet eye training facilitates visuomotor coordination in children with developmental coordination disorder. Research in Developmental Disabilities, 40, 31-41.
Miles, C.A.L., Vine, S.J., Wood, G., Wilson, M.R. (2014). Quiet eye training improves throw and catch performance in children, Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 15(5), 511-515.
Wilson, M.R., Miles, C.A.L., Vine, S.J., Vickers, J.N. (2013). Quiet eye distinguishes children of high and low motor coordination abilities. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, 45(6), 1144-51.