Wednesday, 28 July 2010


With the European Championships in full swing in Barcelona, I turned my Sports Vision to Athletics...

When sprinters start from the blocks, in order to keep aligned their head needs to be down so that they’re in the most aerodynamic position.

Watching Asafa Powell compete at Gateshead recently, he seemed to keep his head down longer than all the other competitors in the race, and it helped him at the start of the race even if he wasn’t the quickest to react to the gun. Sadly for him, he was overtaken towards the end of the race by Tyson Gay, and the same thing happened a week later when he lost to Usain Bolt in Paris.

Fixating a point a few metres ahead can help to keep the head in the correct position. As the athlete comes to a more erect position, fixation needs to move to a point above the track, past the finishing point.

When running indoors, some athletes change their head posture in response to the wall in front of them in anticipation of having to stop rapidly ( To avoid this, they should be encouraged either to fixate a point on the wall that’s about head height above the ground, or to adopt a soft focus, as if they’re able to look through the wall.

When I go jogging around the park, I find that focusing on one point in the distance helps me to run better. If I imagine that I’m attached by a rope to that point, and that I’m being winched in, I can keep going for longer even if I’m feeling tired. As I approach the “winch”, I refocus on another distant point and start again.


Dealing With Errors – Oosthuizen’s Red Spot

A few weeks ago I was umpiring a junior cricket match when a young leg spinner came on to bowl. His first ball pitched in line with middle stump and turned so much that I had to think about whether I should call it a wide. At last, I thought, an English Shane Warne in the making.

Unfortunately, although he continued to turn the ball, whenever he bowled a bad ball, or even if the batsman managed to hit away quite a good ball, the bowler got increasingly down on himself. Although he wasn’t intended to be taken literally, by towards the end of his spell he was making comments such as “I think I should go home” and “I should give up cricket”. Whereas the best spin bowlers, like Warne, are able to put pressure on the batsman, luring him into a mistake even if the pitch isn’t helping him too much, this bowler was putting all the pressure on himself.

Although it’s easy to be critical, many of us do similar things when we perform badly at sport, getting increasingly cross with ourselves with each mistake. Golfers, in particular, are prone to letting one momentary lapse of concentration, or even an unlucky bounce, ruin an excellent round as their game collapses because their brain is constantly reliving the past, and they get more and more tense.

Even Shane Warne would occasionally bowl a bad ball, but the best sportsmen are able to put a previous mistake out of their mind and concentrate on what they’re doing next. Some sportsmen actively “park” the past by wiping it away; for instance, wiping their hand on their clothing or on the ground.

In a sport where you have time to prepare yourself, such as golf, or bowling in cricket, or serving in tennis, a pre-shot routine is really useful; focus on the visual target(s), visualise what you want to achieve, and carry it out, giving no thought to what happened before, or the pressure of the situation. Some golfers make a clear beginning to the pre-shot routine, for instance saying “Now” or “Start” to themselves when they take their club out of the bag, or just before they start their practice swing.

And this is where I think Louis Oosthuizen’s red spot comes in. The open champion didn’t used to have a set routine in his build-up to playing shots, and had problems keeping his mind focused in major tournaments. Golf psychologist Karl Morris suggested that Oosthuizen mark a red dot on the thumb of his glove. He could then look down at the spot as a way of re-focusing on the next task. The result – maintaining his lead over the last two rounds and winning by seven strokes - was mightily impressive. Let’s hope our young leg spinner finds a way of doing something similar.

Cycling and Running Tactics

There seemed to have been quite a lot of crashes in the early stages of the Tour de France this year. I suppose that shouldn’t be surprising when you have a pack of cyclists jostling for position at 45mph, and if the guy in front of you hits a problem, you don’t have much chance of avoiding them.

In middle distance athletics, some athletes seem better at keeping themselves out of trouble than others, and I wondered if this also might apply to cycling, and how one might train to improve ones tactical awareness when in a pack.

In cycling there does seem to be an answer – rollers. Rollers can be placed in several positions, such as line abreast or one behind the other, so that the riders can practice the different situations that they’re likely to experience in a race, including bumping and jostling.

I don’t see any reason why a similar idea couldn’t be used in athletics, either with several treadmills side by side or with one large one. Runners could even be attached to harnesses so they aren’t hurt if they trip up.

It’s about time we produced another Steve Ovett, who was the master of forcing his way out of a blocked position on the track. Get onto it now, Sir Clive.


Friday, 2 July 2010

World Cup

World Cup

The FA has a goalkeeper development website showing a woman goalkeeper in position to collect a low shot. She has clearly watched the path of the ball carefully, because everything is in alignment to intercept the ball. He hands are well forward, preparing to draw the ball in, “little fingers touching”, and her head is right over her hands, so will imminently be right over the ball. Because her body is square on, even if she fails to catch the ball, it could only bounce straight out. And because her head is so far forward, she could probably drop on to the ball easily if it did pop out.

As Robert Green tries to save a 25-yard shot from Clint Dempsey in England’s World cup match against USA, there are a number of differences from the textbook picture above. His head is not quite aligned with his hands, and neither is aligned with the ball. His hands are at uneven heights, and crossed. The ball appears to miss his left hand completely, hitting his right wrist. His body is twisted in the direction that the ball rebounds, into the net. It would appear that he did not track the ball accurately along its path, so did not align himself correctly.

And he is not the only one. You could see the same thing when Algerian goalkeeper Fawzi Chaouchi let in a goal against Slovenia. And a similar thing happened to Scott Carson playing for England against Croatia in 2007. The neural pathways in their brains must be established to enable them to make a textbook save; otherwise they wouldn’t be international goalkeepers. So why didn’t it happen in these cases?

One answer could be that they weren’t concentrating on the game adequately, so were simply late in seeing the shot coming towards them, and so didn’t have sufficient time to get into the correct position. This seems improbable for players at this level.

A more likely explanation is the effect of nerves. When you are nervous, the conscious, thinking part of the brain tries to take over, with the result that movements become a lot less smooth and efficient. Before the USA goal, Green made a clearance which he didn’t appear to hit with perfect timing, with the result that the ball fell to a group of USA players rather than to the intended target. But there could be another factor, which could be described as “falling into bad habits”.

You’re on a motorway, about to overtake the car in front. You check your mirrors, indicate and pull out to overtake, nearly hitting a car outside you that you hadn’t noticed. Although you looked, you didn’t look as carefully as you would have done if you’d been taking your test, for instance. You’ve actually been doing this for a while, but because on other occasions a car hadn’t been there, you had believed that what you had done was adequate, and it had become your routine in these situations.

For professional goalkeepers, a low shot from distance represents a relatively easy save. They can detect its path at an early stage, so might set themselves up on that basis, rather than following the path of the ball all the way. A less than perfect body position may also not matter on most occasions. But if the keeper’s made an early misjudgement, or nerves mean that his body has not moved as smoothly as normal, he can be found out.

Coaches need to watch out for a player who’s getting into bad habits, even if they seem to be getting away with it. Marking the ball with numbers or letters which the keeper has to call out as he catches it can ensure that he carefully follows the path of the ball. Players can sometimes give themselves a verbal reminder to ensure their technique remains solid.

I was umpiring a cricket match recently. It was near the end of the game, with the batting side about to win comfortably. I saw the batsman pull another ball to the boundary for four. It was only sometime later that the fielding side pointed out that the wicket had been broken. After seeing the player make the shot, I’d followed the ball, and hadn’t noticed that the batsman had hit his own wicket.

My mistake was a bit embarrassing, but some are rather more important. However, there, but for the grace of God, go all of us.


World Cup - The Ball

The Ball

There has been much discussion of the Jabulani, the football designed by Adidas that being used in the World Cup. Adidas say that it’s their most accurate ball ever, yet it doesn’t seem to be appreciated by a lot of the players.

It does seem as if players are having trouble controlling it when shooting, as if it doesn’t respond aerodynamically in the way they’re expecting, and it’s possible that playing at altitude may be part of the reason for this. But could there be another factor?

The ball that’s used on the English Premier League is the Nike Total 90 Omni. The manufacturers say that has a special graphic that makes the ball easier to see using peripheral vision. Its yellow colour makes it stand out if it’s in the central part of our vision because the light receptor cells there are particularly sensitive to yellow (the reason why high visibility jackets are yellow). The Jabulani is white with some multi-coloured areas.

What may be important here is not that one ball is necessarily much easier to see than the other, but the simple fact that they are quite different. When a professional footballer kicks a ball, he will be much more accurate in the part of the ball he kicks than a park player. In order to do this, he will have to focus on that particular part of the ball. But he will do it subconsciously, not realising that he’s doing it.

Faced with a different ball design, the subconscious brain will not immediately recognise the correct part of the ball for the shot. The shot is hit less accurately, with the result that it doesn’t follow the intended path.

In time, the brain recalibrates for the new ball. Those who have been training with the ball for longer, such as the Germans, will have an initial advantage. Others will catch up in time, but will they do so quickly enough?


New Balls Please

I was lucky enough to get Centre Court tickets to Wimbledon recently. Watching Andy Roddick play Michael Llodra, I thought I’d watch their head and eyes as they played the ball.

Ideally for this you need slow motion photography or head-mounted cameras, and all I had was a pair of binoculars. However, it appeared to me that Roddick was looking some way ahead of his racket when he hit the ball. Llodra, however, seemed to look down at the contact between ball and racket when playing backhands, but more in front on forehands. Llodra won the first set 6-4, with his backhands being especially strong.

As time went by, however, I thought Roddick had brought his focus closer to the contact area, though still in front. Llodra, meanwhile, seemed to be less consistent, sometimes looking at he contact area, and sometimes a way in front. There wasn’t a complete correlation between where he looked and whether he won the point or not, but he seemed to be more likely to be successful when his focus was nearer the contact area. Roddick went on to win the next three sets and the match.

It’s certainly possible that my observations were mistaken, or that Roddick’s game improved and Llodra’s deteriorated, their gaze positions altered as a consequence. For instance, if Roddick started hitting the ball harder, Llodra might have had less time to get in position for his shots, including his head position.

So is there any evidence that where you look when you hit the ball is important in tennis? Actually, there is...

In 2007, Damien Lafont presented a paper entitled “Gaze Control during the Hitting Phase in Tennis”. Using high-speed photography, he found that most professional players looked out in front of the racket, sometimes into the opponent’s court at the moment of impact. However, the visual strategy of the very best players, such as Federer and Nadal, differed in two respects. Firstly, they fixated the contact zone, and secondly they maintained this fixation until after they had completed their swing.

This is a bit more than the traditional “keep your eye on the ball”. The ball can be arriving at speeds of over 130mph, which is too fast for the eyes to track accurately all the way. They must be able to make some early judgments about where the ball is going to go by watching their opponent’s actions as he plays the shot. There is likely to be some early pursuit of the ball to confirm this.

Knowing when to time your shot can be estimated from when the ball bounces in front of you, and then the elite players start focusing on the area, some way in front of them, where they intend to hit the ball – the contact area. It seems that they don’t actually watch the ball onto the racket, but instead watch the racket hit the ball in the contact area (as opposed to watching the swing of the racket as it hits the ball).

Federer adds one, possibly unique twist to this. He actually twists his head so that he can see the contact area through the back of the racket. He thus ensures that his head and eyes are still at the point of contact, and immediately afterwards, making it less likely hat he’ll snatch the shot by looking ahead too early.

Federer’s technique may not be for everybody, and he has been perfecting it over a number of years. Photographs show him doing this at the age of three. However, the idea of training yourself to focus on the contact zone as, and immediately after, you play the shot can be practised.

Many courts are surrounded by wire netting. You can push a ball into the netting to hold it in place at different heights and positions for different shots. Then, when you play, imagine the ball is held in place for a millisecond as you swing the racket. You then look for contact between your racket and the ball either from the front of the racket, like Nadal, or from the back, like Federer, whichever seems to suit you best.

David Donner