Get me out of this slump! Visual illusions improve sports performance

March 13, 2012

(Medical Xpress) -- With the NCAA men’s college basketball tournament set to begin, college basketball fans around the United States are in the throes of March Madness. Anyone who has seen a game knows that the fans are like extra players on the court, and this is especially true during critical free throws. Fans of the opposing team will wave anything they can, from giant inflatable noodles to big heads, to make it difficult for players to focus on the basket.

But one way a player might be able to improve his chances at making that free throw is by tricking himself into thinking the basket is bigger than it really is. That’s the surprising conclusion of a study forthcoming in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for .

Psychological scientist Jessi Witt of Purdue University has played sports her whole life. In 2005, she even played on the U.S. National Ultimate Frisbee team, which won the gold medal at the World Games. In graduate school, she started studying how perception relates to sports performance. “You hear about athletes making these comments like, oh, I was playing so well, everything seemed like it was moving in slow motion,” she says. Much of her research has examined this effect—how people who are doing well at a sport seem to see the world differently. Softball and tennis players who are hitting well think the balls look bigger, for example.

That’s all very interesting, but everyone has the same question about her research, Witt says. “When people interview me for all these sports things, they always want to know, ‘How do I get better?’ And I say, ‘I don’t know—I just study the perception.’” So Witt and coauthors Sally A. Linkenauger of Max Planck Institute-Tubingen and Dennis R. Proffitt of the University of Virginia decided they should do a study on how to improve performance.

For the experiment, the researchers used a well-known optical illusion. They set up a golf hole on a ramp and used a projector to shine a ring of circles around the hole. When they projected a ring of 11 small circles around the golf hole, it made the central circle look bigger by comparison. When they put five large circles around the same golf hole, the hole looked smaller. Thirty-six college students took 10 tries at each condition.

The putters sank more putts when the hole looked bigger—about 10 percent more. “That’s one stroke,” Witt says. “In a professional setting, that could make a huge difference.” It’s still not clear how a player could make this happen, though—setting up projectors on the putting green isn’t very practical.

But how do these findings apply to college basketball? Visual distractions likely make it harder for players to size up the basket. So fans lucky enough to see the games in person should take note: don’t forget your big head at home.

Explore further: Why do some athletes choke under pressure?

More information:

Related Stories

Why do some athletes choke under pressure?

October 21, 2011

(Medical Xpress) -- Athletes know they should just do their thing on the 18th hole, or during the penalty shootout, or when they’re taking a 3-point shot in the last moments of the game. But when that shot could mean ...

Deliberate practice: necessary but not sufficient

October 24, 2011

(Medical Xpress) -- Psychological scientist Guillermo Campitelli is a good chess player, but not a great one. “I’m not as good as I wanted,” he says. He had an international rating but not any of the titles ...

Sexism and gender inequality

October 28, 2011

(Medical Xpress) -- Individual beliefs don’t stay confined to the person who has them; they can affect how a society functions. A new study published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological ...

Recommended for you

First language wires brain for later language-learning

December 1, 2015

You may believe that you have forgotten the Chinese you spoke as a child, but your brain hasn't. Moreover, that "forgotten" first language may well influence what goes on in your brain when you speak English or French today.

Anxiety can kill your social status

December 1, 2015

Neuroscientists at EPFL identify a brain region that links anxious temperament to low social status. The researchers were able to tweak social hierarchy in animals by using vitamin B3.

Watching eyes prevent littering

December 1, 2015

People are less likely to drop litter if it has printed eyes on it, researchers at Newcastle University, UK, have found. An image of watching eyes reduced the odds of littering by around two thirds.

How can I tell if she's lying?

November 27, 2015

Sarcasm, white lies and teasing can be difficult to identify for those with certain disorders – new video inventory developed at McGill may help


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.