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Study: Visual Illusions Improve Sports Performance

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If you’ve ever experienced the kind of day on the golf course where you feel like you’re putting into a thimble, take a moment to reverse that thinking. Your performance could be related to how you perceive the size of your target, according to new research from Purdue University’s Action-Modulated Perception Lab.

Purdue researcher Jessica Witt and her team have long been intrigued by athletes’ confidence levels and the effect it has on their games. In a 2005 study, "See the Ball, Hit the Ball", Witt’s team studied softball players by designing an experiment that tried to correlate perceived softball size to performance. She interviewed players following a game and asked them to estimate the size of the softball by picking a circle off of a board that contained several different sizes. She then found out how the players had done at the plate that day. As expected, players that were hitting well chose the larger sized circles to represent the ball size, while the underperforming hitters chose the smaller circles. The team was not able to answer the question of causality, so they expanded the research to other sports.

In July 2008, Witt and her team released a similar study focused on golf, "Putting to a bigger hole: Golf performance relates to perceived size". Using the same experiment format, players who had just finished a round of golf were asked to pick out the perceived size of the hole from a collection of holes that varied in diameter by a few centimeters. Once again, the players who had scored well that day picked the larger holes and vice versa for that day's hackers. So, the team came to the same conclusion that there is some relationship between perception and performance, but could not figure out the direction of the effect. Ideally, a player could "imagine" a larger hole and then play better because of that visual cue.

In the latest experiment, published in Psychological Science in 2012, Witt set up a practice golf green in her lab and asked 36 volunteers to practice putting. An overhead projector above the hole was rigged to shine eleven more holes around the actual hole. When the projected holes were smaller in diameter than the actual hole, the players reported that it made the actual hole seem larger. When surrounded by larger projected holes, the actual hole seemed smaller.

The test group’s putting on this modified green showed that perception and performance are indeed linked. When the brain was fooled into thinking the hole was bigger, the volunteers sank 10% more putts than with no optical illusion present. "That's one stroke," Witt says. "In a professional setting, that could make a huge difference." Perhaps believing the hole is larger gives the brain more confidence even though the margin of error in aiming may also be off target. Axon is conducting research to learn more about the link between perception and performance.

Dan Peterson reports on sports performance research for Axon Sports, an Elite Performance Partner of Athletes’ Performance. Axon develops cutting edge tools that assess and train the athletic brain. Follow Axon Sports on Twitter and Facebook.

Tags: Golf, Focus, Attitude, Sports Performance