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Thursday, 14 November 2013

What makes a person good at ball sports?

I have recently come across some interesting research around a subject called "Quiet Eye Training". The term was originally coined by Professor Joan Vickers, from Calgary University and has been defined as the final visual fixation of long steady duration (500-3000 milli seconds) found typically in experts in aiming type tasks (golf putt, shooting, basketball free throws) and has been described as a perception action variable. 

Positive findings have emerged from a number of different tasks, from golfing and basketball skills, from surgeons performing laparoscopy, from police fire arms tasks, recently from military marksmen (plus many more) and (why I am interested in this) from children with motor coordination disorder. These studies have varied in design in terms of the duration of training, the delay until retention (how long does it take to retain the skill, as a novice, for example) and the type of situations that a trained-up individual can perform in (initial studies, from Exeter University in both putting and basketball have revealed that the individuals (both novice and expert) who had Quiet eye training (QET) were able to retain their performances better under pressure compared to those who received more regular technical training. Therefore, this is important for athletes who "choke"). The vast majority of these studies have supported QE training as a means to expedite motor learning.

This concept of QET has been around since the 90's and many sports coaches, psychologists and trainers use the concept daily. It has also been incorporated into mindfulness, visualisation, sports specific vision therapy and anxiety relieving techniques in terms of getting the individual to be in the present moment and take time to focus on specifics of their technique (for example looking at the back of the ball for a prolonged moment before you take your back swing of the putt in golf). 

So, it seems natural that researchers are now looking at whether QET can improve the motor outcomes of children who have movement control difficulties. Can we teach children who are not naturally good at ball skills (for example) to focus on aspects of the ball or the target by using a QE technique? Researchers at the University of Exeter are doing just this. They have watched "good ball catchers" and analysed why they are "good" at catching compared to the poor catchers. Their studies reveal that good catchers have a technique that they are comfortable and confident with. They are aware of technical pointers such as cupping their hands together, without being told what to do. They are also able to identify a technique that suits the task and will adapt this technique according to the task at hand. The poorer catchers do not make this adaptation and will stick to their learnt technique no matter what the situation calls for. They do not adapt to their environment naturally-which is important when in a game situation. The researchers hypothesise that perhaps these poorer catchers feel incapable of adapting or changing their technique. They then did a pilot study recently which revealed that Quiet Eye Training might be an effective intervention for improving the motor skill of typically developing children.

The study compared a ‘technical training’ intervention which included the normal instructions for throwing and catching (e.g. smooth throw, hands together) with the QET which used instructions such and take time to aim, track the ball closely. Results indicated that only the QET group had significant improvements in catching performance in an immediate retention task. These results suggest that QET may be an effective intervention to improve the catching performance of typically developing children. The researchers are now assessing the effectiveness of QET for children with DCD (developmental coordination disorder) in a larger study funded by the Waterloo Foundation. This is very exciting for us parents, teachers and therapists of children who have motor skill difficulties, as it could be a fun and specific way of actually teaching ball skills to these children effectively and perhaps more efficiently as to how we do it at the moment. If you have ever taught a child with motor coordination difficulties how to catch a ball, you will agree, it takes a lot of patience, time, encouragement and motivation for both parties! Perhaps we should start incorporating these techniques into our teaching, even whilst the research is not quite there to support it as a technique for these children. There certainly can be no harm in using it as one of the techniques we use when teaching our children?

 Klostermann, A., Kredel, R., & Hossner, E.-J. (2013, February 11). The “Quiet Eye” and Motor Performance: Task Demands Matter!. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1037/a0031499
Wood, Vine, Wilson (2013). The impact of visual illusions on perception, action planning, and motor performance, Atten Percept Psychophys, DOI 10.3758/s13414-013-0489-y. Horn, Okumura, Alexander, Gardin, & Sylvester (2012). Quiet eye duration is responsive to variability of practice and to the axis of target changes. Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport. 83, Issue 2, June 2012, Pages 204-211