Wednesday, 5 December 2012

The A - Z of Sports Vision - Deception

One of the main advantages that an elite athlete has over a novice is the ability to anticipate the actions of their opponent. The opponent, however, can try and counter this by adding a deception or disguise into their play. One of the earliest exponents of this kind of deceptive play was Stanley Matthews. He would tap the ball with the inside of his foot to feint in one direction, and then use the outside of his foot to drag the ball past the defender in the opposite direction. The advent of one-day cricket has seen the blossoming of the “slower ball”. This is achieved by changing the grip on the ball so that it comes out of the hand more slowly than the standard delivery but, crucially, the arm speed remains the same which makes it difficult to spot. The best one-day batsmen however, such as Indian wicketkeeper M S Dhoni, are tending to commit to their stroke a little later in response. In squash, Flynn (1996) identified several ways in which a player might deceive his opponent, such as using his body to shield the ball, set up a pattern of play so that the opponent comes to expect the same play again, or adjusting the timing of the swing so that it’s less obvious when the racket will make contact with the ball. There has not been a great deal of research into this area, but Schmidt & Wrisberg (2008) found that when an athlete wants to cause a delay in an opponent’s response, the time between the fake and the real movement should be between 60 and 100ms. If the time is shorter than that, the opponent may ignore the fake movement and react to the intended movement. If the time is longer than 100ms, the opponent may react with only a slight delay which may not be much slower than a normal response. One of the most detailed analyses of the use of deception in sport has been the analysis of the sidestep in rugby by Brault, Bideau, Kulpa & Craig (2012). They found that novice rugby players were more easily misled by movements of the head, upper body and outside foot than experts, who appeared to be more attuned to the angle of the hips, which is a reliable guide to the final running direction. Experts also waited longer before committing themselves in one direction or the other. The authors suggest that deception could be increased if the player wears brightly coloured boots or has contrasting colours on the upper part of their shirt. So maybe those players with gold boots aren't just being flash after all. David Donner

Monday, 5 November 2012

The A - Z of Sports Vision - Brain Waves

Millions of nerve cells in our brain are being activated all the time, which means there is electrical activity in our brain, even when we are asleep. This electrical activity can be measured by an electroencephalogram, or EEG. The combination of electrical activity causes wavelike rhythms, which are recorded by the EEG as alpha, beta, gamma or delta waves according to their frequency. Alpha waves are the prominent pattern when we are awake, but relaxed with our eyes closed, and still aware of what is happening around us. Beta waves are emitted when we are alert or under stress. They also during deep REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep and may be associated with recalling memories. Delta and theta waves are mostly associated with sleep. However delta waves may occur when we are really concentrating hard on a difficult mental task and theta waves can occur briefly during emotional responses to events. Gamma waves are high-frequency waves that are associated with increased mental abilities, greater awareness and feelings of happiness. We’ve already seen (Olympic Countdown – Shooting) how elite marksmen exhibit more alpha and less beta and gamma activity than novice shooters, but similar findings have been made in other sports. An overall increase in alpha wave power has been found during the time that karate experts break wooden boards (Collins et al 1990). More left hemisphere alpha power has been shown in the preparatory period before putting (Crews & Landers 1993). They also found that in the last second before the putt, increased right hemisphere alpha activity was associated with more accuracy. Babilon et al found that an increase in high frequency alpha waves in the parts of the brain that controlled fine motor movements were indicative of successful putting. And Hartfield (1984) found increased alpha activity in the left hemisphere of professional basketball players just before making a winning shot. It’s likely that these alpha states occur when sportsmen are able to clear their mind of distractions, and concentrate fully on the task in hand. There are different methods to achieve this, such as the use of music and meditation. But a simple way may be to give 100% concentration on what you can see; whether it’s the precise spot of the ball you’re about to kick, or studying the defensive alignment of the opposition so you can see threats and opportunities at the earliest stage. David Donner

Tuesday, 23 October 2012

On meeting a Paralympic legend.

I recently had the privilege of meeting Chris Holmes. I have to say I didn't know who he was, but he turned out to be a brilliant and motivational speaker. As a boy he was keen on sport, including rugby and cricket, and he was a county standard swimmer. He had three ambitions: to get his A-Levels, to go to Cambridge, and to represent his country at sport. Then, when he was 14 years old, he woke up one morning to discover that he’s lost his sight. He had a genetic eye condition called exudative vitreoretinopathy (the retina is folded and doesn't grow properly, so it tears easily), but up until this point his eyesight hadn't been badly affected. But even now that his sight had been lost, he was still determined to achieve his three goals. Chris returned to the pool and committed to the same training regime as sighted swimmers aspiring for the Olympics. He got straight As at A-Level and read politics at Cambridge, but his first swimming championships wasn't such a success. This was the Junior European Championships in Moscow, just a year after he’d lost his sight. After his race, an official said to him “It’s a long way to come 28th out of 29”. Chris saw that in order to finish on the podium he’d have to improve his time by about six seconds – a massive time in a 100-metre swim. But then he did a really clever thing: he worked out the number of training sessions that he would do before the Barcelona Olympics in 1992, and calculated that he would only have to improve by one five-hundredths of a second per session. This seemed eminently possible. I was immediately reminded of Sir Clive Woodward’s famous quote “Winning the World Cup was not about doing one thing 100% better, but about doing 100 things 1% better”. I asked Chris if anyone had helped him come up with his idea, but it was entirely his own reasoning. The training regime he followed meant getting up at 4.40 in the morning, and swimming 7,000 metres in the morning, and another 7,000 metres in the evening. He did this, six days a week, for 17 years. He would go on to win six gold medals in Barcelona, and nine Olympic medals in a career in which he broke 35 World records. When talking about his achievements, Chris would often begin a sentence by saying “I was lucky enough to win…” Clearly, hard work counted considerably more than luck. But what struck me was the phenomenal mental strength he had at just 14 and 15 years old. I suppose you could argue that he was “lucky” to have that. Chris Holmes is the most remarkable person I've ever met. He’s almost certainly the most remarkable that I shall ever meet. David Donner

Wednesday, 10 October 2012

The A - Z of Sports Vision - Adrenaline

Adrenaline (Also known as epinephrine) is a hormone produced by the adrenal glands, which sit at the top of the kidneys. It has a number of functions, such as regulating our heart rate. But it’s particularly involved in our reaction to a threat or stress – the so-called “fight or flight” response. In sport, this can have a number of benefits. Blood is diverted from the organs that are no use in a fight, such as the digestive system (hence butterflies in the stomach), to those that are needed – the muscles in our limbs. Our heart rate increases, as well as our metabolism, enabling us to release more energy, especially from fats. All this is really useful for a fairly short burst of physical activity, but not so good for endurance sports or when you’re putting on a golf course. In the eye, adrenaline causes relaxation of the ciliary muscle, which results in a loss of ability to focus close objects clearly (accommodation). The pupil also enlarges, resulting in a reduction in our depth of focus. This can make it more difficult for an older shooter to focus on the sight of a gun. In more stressful situations, “tunnel vision” can occur. We don’t actually lose our ability to see to the sides, but attention tends to focus on a limited area, especially in the face of a threat. For a penalty taker, the goalkeeper can be perceived as a threat: indeed, goalkeepers seem to have cottoned on to this, and try and make their presence felt as much as possible. There are some times when a narrow focus of attention can be useful, such as a when a darts player just wants to concentrate on the board. For a rugby prop forward, there are times when it can be useful, such as when the scrum engages, but times when it isn't, such as when he finds himself in open play. So for optimal sporting performance you need the right amount of adrenaline – not too much and not too little. It’s therefore essential that players practice in competitive situations. They’ll still be up for the game, but will still be able to spot the killer pass to the player who’s unmarked. David Donner

Thursday, 6 September 2012

Winning Mentality

It’s often easier to get to the top than to stay there, as the England cricket team, outplayed in every department by the South Africans, have discovered. Few teams manage to stay at the top for long. In cricket, the West Indies in the 1970s/80s and the Australians under Steve Waugh come to mind. I predict that this South African side won’t join them. In fact, I think it’s likely that they’ll lose the crown to Australia in their next series. Some people think that winning is the only thing that matters in sport, and others that competitive sport is a bad thing for children because some may perceive themselves as “losers”. Both of these ideas have been detrimental to British sport. I shall try and bring these apparently disparate thoughts together by looking at the Howard of Effingham Year 7 rugby league team. These boys only started playing rugby league in September 2011. If you’d said then that within a year they would be playing at Wembley in the prelude to the Challenge Cup final, you would have been thought mad. If you’d written a story about a team that in less than a year not only become the first team from the south to reach the final of the Carnegie Champion Schools Competition, but would actually go on and win it, the story would be dismissed as completely unrealistic. But that’s exactly what they did. By definition, they must have had the potential to have achieved all this at the start. They just didn’t know that they had it. That means one of two things: either there’s something extraordinary in the air in Effingham; or that there are millions of kids with the potential to do amazing things and we just need to find a way of unlocking it. In the semi-final, they were 10-0 down at half time against a team from St Helens. If they’d thought that winning was everything, they would probably have panicked at the idea they were going to lose. If they thought that “taking part” was all that mattered, they might have just resigned themselves to their fate. Fortunately, they’ve had some enlightened coaching at Effingham Rugby Club, and they instinctively know that the point of sport is trying to win at the highest possible level. It means trying to overcome whatever obstacles the opposition put in front of you. So when they were faced with a higher obstacle than before, they simply raised the level of their game to try and overcome it, and ran out 20-10 winners. In some ways, being relative novices might have been an advantage. They wouldn’t have had some of the negative thoughts such as “we always lose against this lot” that can come with experience. Crucially, they didn’t put a limit on what they could achieve, as most adult sides would have done. It was playing against a highly skilled team that was trying to win that forced the Howard team to raise the level of their own game, unlocking more of that hidden potential. When you look at it this way, you see that you should really want your opponents to play really well, to set really challenging obstacles for you, because that’s how you can develop your own abilities, unlocking more of your own potential. Your opponent should try and make things as difficult as possible for you, including trying to exploit any perceived weakness, just as you should do the same to your opponent. Which brings me back to South Africa: before the series started, the South Africans were facing a daunting task. They were up against the Number One ranked team in their own back yard with very little preparation time. And then a freak injury took out their talismanic keeper, ending his career .They knew that a really high level of performance would be required, and they delivered, crushing a below par England by a huge margin. Although the South Africans deny leaking emails from Kevin Pietersen, they seemed happy that he wasn’t playing in the third Test. I may be wrong, but they don’t strike me as a side that is looking to really push themselves to higher and higher levels. Contrast this with the attitude of British cycling. The British cycling team set themselves the challenge of matching their unprecedented medal haul from Beijing, although rule changes made it much harder. Having won 7 out of 10 track medals in London, they’re going to try and win all 10 in Rio in 2016. Of course, they may well not achieve this, but by setting the obstacles high, they are likely to get the best performances from their athletes. If you can take into every match the attitude that you’re not trying to defeat the other team/your opponent, but trying to overcome all the obstacles they put in your way, you will always play the game in the right spirit; you will produce your best performances when there is the greatest need, such as when the opposition is strong, or when the playing conditions are most demanding; you will welcome the pressure of a big match occasion as simply another obstacle to overcome that will push you higher, rather than distracting you; you will have your full concentration on each moment of the match, and not get distracted by “what if” thoughts; and you will unlock a greater amount of your hidden talent.

Wednesday, 1 August 2012

Olympics Hits Leatherhead Surrey

The atmosphere for the men's road race was amazing. In how many other countries would the police get cheered as they rode past? Although we didn't win, the race seems to have inspired thousands to get on a bike, so a gold medal for legacy, then! David Donner

Olympic Countdown - Swimming

Synaesthesia is a condition in which there is cross-activation within the sensory areas of the brain, so that activity in one area (say vision), excites activity in another, such as smell. There are thought to be over a hundred different types, but in the most common form, letter, numbers of days/weeks/months of the year evoke the experience of colour. For some, swimming evokes colour. Danko Nikolic at the Institute for Brain Research in Frankfurt has researched this phenomenon. In 2009, Hazem Toutounji, a national swimming champion for Syria, told Nikolic that each swimming style was bathed in a distinct colour in his mind's eye. Uta Jurgens, a graduate student of Nikolic's, and a keen swimmer, admitted that her trips to the pool, too, were awash with colour. She sees red whenever she swims the breaststroke. Backstroke is lavender, butterfly sky-blue. Nikolic and colleagues showed Jurgens and Toutounji, plus a group of non-synaesthete volunteers, four black-and-white photographs of swimmers performing front crawl, backstroke, breaststroke or butterfly. Their task was to find the exact colour that the photos evoked in a book containing more than 5500 colours. A month later, Nikolic repeated the test. By assigning each colour in the book coordinates in a three-dimensional "colour space", he was able to calculate that the difference between the colours chosen on the two occasions was 8 times smaller for his synaesthetes than for non-synaesthetes. Nikolic then performed a second experiment, known as a Stroop Test. In the original Stroop Test, the names of colours were printed out but in the “wrong” colour. For instance, the word “red” might be printed in blue. It was found that it was much more difficult for participants to name the colour when it was printed in this way than when it was printed in red. In this test, the group were shown the same photographs with each photo printed in a different colour. The subjects were asked to name the colour of the photo as fast as possible. Both Toutounji and Jurgens took significantly longer to name the colour when it did not match the one evoked by their synaesthesia. These tests suggests that the concept of swimming can produce synaesthesia just as well as swimming itself, although there may be other forms, such as when touch produces certain emotions, where this is not the case. It seems that we may all have a bit of synaesthesia within us. In music, many of us associate low notes with dark colours and high notes with brighter ones. It’s thought that this crossover of senses may lay behind human creativity. Some scientists believe it may even have been how humans developed language, if sounds evoked the object that was being described. I don’t think I’m very creative: I wish I saw more colours when I swim – it would certainly make it more fun. David Donner

Tuesday, 17 July 2012

It must be love - Part 5

I've recently come back from a holiday in Croatia, and one of the things you notice is how many tennis courts there are. I don't know if they are all public, but they looked as if they might be. Here, we seem to have private clubs which can be rather intimidating. I think our club's pretty friendly, but Yummy Eileen's friend, There's Only One Monique, was once told off for showing off too much flesh when sunbathing. To be fair, our's is a country club, with swimming pool, gym, restaurant and plenty of families. Anyway, I can trump that. I was told off at a tennis club.......for playing tennis. YE belongs to two clubs, the second of which is just a tennis club. She'd been telling me how friendly everyone was there, so I was looking forward to it when she invited me to a lunch there. I made a special effort top dress up in my smartest smart casual. My initial impression was that it was a friendly club. I got chatting to a nice couple who turned out to be the aforementioned TOOM, her husband Delvis (plays in a band) and their young daughter. Most of the members were out on court at various times, so the daughter was left on her own looking rather bored. I took pity on her and suggested we had a little knock-up on a free court. We found rackets and were just tapping the ball over the net to each other when YE came over to say that a committee member told her we had to stop because I wasn't wearing proper tennis shoes. It had been a long time since I'd been told off - as an adult you don't really expect it. I was feeling pretty embarrassed when I came back into the clubhouse, and since no one spoke to me I left as soon as possible. So much for a friendly club. And now there's someone at this club who's really horrible to YE because she plays in the team for our club (which she's done for years) and not for hers. It's just the kind of pettiness that puts people off joining a tennis club, and maybe even be part of the reason why we don't produce as many top tennis players as we should. David Donner

Monday, 2 July 2012

Olympic Countdown - Shooting

Brain waves Research has shown significant increases in left hemisphere alpha activity (8-12 Hz) during shot preparation of skilled marksmen (Hatfield et al 1994), and between the best and worst shots of elite archers (Salazar et al 1990). Increases in alpha waves are often associated with a reduced overall activity of the brain. Haufler et al (2000) found that during aiming, when marksmen were compared with novice shooters, marksmen exhibited less activation (increased alpha with less beta and gamma activity) at all electrode sites on the head. The most pronounced differences were in the left central-temporal parietal areas. Kerick et al (2001) looked at skilled marksmen during shooting. Over an eight-second period preceding the trigger pull, they exhibited greater alpha activity in the left temporal area compared with a control activity. Hatfield et al (1984) also found a progressive increase in alpha power during the last 7.5 seconds of aiming, whilst there no change in the right temporal area. “So what?” I hear you say. Well, what if you could control your own brainwaves? This is what “EEG biofeedback” aims to do. It’s been used in the treatment of ADHD. The procedure usually involves watching a video game, and when the desired effect occurs (such as reducing theta waves) they get an encouragement, such as a beep or a character moving in the desired direction. Lander et al (1991) used EEG biofeedback to see if it could improve archery performance. Research shows that shooters have reduced cortical activity in the left temporal area when shooting. Experienced pre-elite male (16) and female (8) archers were randomly assigned to one of three treatment conditions. a) Correct feedback (i.e. greater left hemisphere low-frequency activity; b) incorrect feedback (i.e. greater right hemisphere low-frequency feedback, and c) no feedback control. They found that those trained to shift the level of cortical activity towards more negativity in the left temporal region showed a significant improvement in performance, and those trained to shift the level of cortical activity towards more negative in the right temporal region showed significantly poorer performance. There was no change in the control group. However, all is not as clear cut as it might seem. Examination of participants’ EEG spectra from pre- to post-training failed to reveal a clear pattern of change as a result of the training. So we’re not there yet. But one day it’s likely that shooters will be able to control the brainwaves to help them win gold. David Donner

Thursday, 21 June 2012

Wayne Rooney Practicing Visualisation

It was nice to read on Phil McNulty, BBC Sports Chief Football Writer's blog, that Wayne Rooney is practicing his visualisation techniques. Training this 'minds eye' or 'quiet eye' is key in elite sports performance and obviously worked for Wayne and England on Tuesday evening. Read Phil's blog here.

Wednesday, 20 June 2012

It must be love - Part 4

There's actually a second make of daily disposable multifocal lenses that's just come out. I tried them for tennis this week and I found them to be much easier to handle, more comfortable, and gave better distance vision. Maybe the reading wasn't quite as good, but I still much preferred them to the other type. I partnered The Reverend Ian. TRE is not actually a vicar, any more than French Nigel is actually French. But French Nigel does at least have a French surname, The Reverend Ian has no ecclesiastical connections whatsoever as far as I'm aware. He does on occasion, however, lose his service action. And when this happens, one cannot help but be reminded of a vicar, walking home after a difficult meeting with a parishioner. He's caught out in a heavy storm and his umbrella, having been blown inside out, has now fallen to bits. A large 4x4 has driven past him and through a large puddle simultaneously, wit the result that he looks, and feels, as if he's taken a long swim with his clothes on. He knows that all this is yet another test of his faith, so he shouldn't and won't complain. But he has led a mostly blameless life, and often done his best to help others. So he can't begin to understand why the Almighty should choose to torment him in this fashion. We ended up on top, even though we were quite inconsistent. Something of a curate's egg, I suppose. David Donner

Table Cricket

I must confess that I’d not heard of table cricket until I was asked to umpire a regional final of the Macquarrie National Competition. The game was originally developed by Doug Williamson at Nottingham Trent University in 1990. The aim was to give a sporting opportunity for youngsters who could not take part in the traditional Paralympic sports. It was created especially for those with more severe physical impairments, such as muscular dystrophy. The game is played on a table tennis table. The ball is rolled down a slope, and the batter has to hit it to designated areas on the side of the table to score runs. There are fielders who can try and block the ball with sliding panels. You certainly need to be on your toes as an umpire as the action can be quite frenetic. The excitement of the kids matched that of any junior cricket I’ve been involved with, and it made for the kind of day you never forget. There’s a version of the game called target cricket, which is designed for those with learning difficulties. The batter has to try and hit the ball to targets or gaps. Once a target has been hit, it’s reversed and is no longer a “live” scoring option. It occurs to me that it would be a good idea if there were also the option of using a ball that rattles, as in blind cricket, so those with visual disabilities can play the game as well. I think I’ll suggest that. David Donner

Friday, 8 June 2012

It must be love - Part 3

My tennis was washed out this week, but I learn that Bulldog Russell has won the French Open. This was a tournament won by our club, in case you were wondering why you hadn't seen his name listed in the Order of Play at Roland Garros.I was glad to hear that all those coaching lessons have paid off for him at last.I entered a tournament once. The effect remains so strong, that to this day I am unable to say the word in public. People look at me rather askance when I refer to "the T word".It didn't help that I'd been getting increasing elbow pain when playing, especially on serve. And I turned up to find that nearly everyone else was a team player, and I'd only just graduated (reluctantly) from the beginners' group. I was introduced to my partner, who clearly faced that dilemma familiar to any child opening a present expecting it to be the "must have" that will make them the envy of their friends; only to find it's some cheapskate version that will make them a laughing stock. There's an internal battle between crushing disappointment and the need to maintain some semblance of politeness. In this case, crushing disappointment won by a knock-out in the opening seconds of Round One. I made a remark about an elbow support she was putting on. "Well you're not having it!" This remark was not made in response to any kind of request of mine. Rather, it was delivered in the exasperated tone of a hostess who, having thought it would be charitable to invite the neighbours round for a sherry on Christmas Eve, had immediately regretted it upon their arrival, and had now noticed that one of them had just trodden something unmentionable into the Axminster. I thought it would be gallant to offer to serve into the sun, an offer that was quickly accepted. But this meant that when I tossed the ball up to serve, I completely lost sight of it. I swung the racket in the direction of where I thought the ball should be. Contact was confirmed when I felt a searing pain in my elbow. Through watering eyes I peered in vain to see where in the service area the ball had landed. But it hadn't landed in the service area; nor in any other part of the court. It had lodged, on the full, halfway up the back fence. For the second serve, I tried to adjust the power. This did land in the service area. Unfortunately, it was one of those on our side of the court. This proved to be the first of several double faults I would make during the day. The atmosphere between my partner and me descended from frosty, to something Messrs Celsius and Kelvin would have calculated to have been physically impossible. We lost every match, but did win some games. My partner was a pretty good player, and even I couldn't mess up all the time. We did, however, come last, by a considerable margin. I was expecting the men to be really competitive, and the women to be supportive. But it was the other way around. The men, especially the better players, often made encouraging comments. But to the women - Yummy Eileen and The Immaculate Karen excepted - I was about as welcome as flatulence in a mixed sauna. And even Yummy Eileen's sympathy was rather overshadowed by her joy at partnering one of the strongest men. He was also the husband of my partner, which I'm sure didn't help her mood any. The Immaculate Karen is, well, immaculate, and did sympathise later. But she's also the best player and a coach. So for all those reasons she doesn't mind playing with a weaker partner. And that's the point - I see it clearly now. This was a blind date. Both the men and women were looking for one thing in their partners, but it wasn't the same thing. For the men, obviously, it's looks. And I had no complaints on that score. But the women (TIK apart) wanted the best players. So I now have a huge amount of sympathy for my partner. She's turned up thinking she's in with a chance of a dinner date with George Clooney, only to discover she's been paired with the office nerd, who's promising she'll be really excited to see his extensive model railway collection. So I really should sign up to the course of counselling, get over my phobia and enter another tournament. Just another couple of things I need to do: firstly, I need to raise the standard of my tennis. Something on a par with Roger Federer should do it. And then I need to make myself available, which means fitting it in to my busy schedule. And at the moment, in my list of things to do, it lies just below organising an ice hockey match in Hell. David Donner

Wednesday, 6 June 2012

Olympic Countdown - Judo

Does lots of practice make you more left handed? Some people are right-handed, other left-handed, and a few are ambidextrous. Movements of the right hand, for instance, are controlled by the left side of the brain. Rapcsak et al (1993) proposed that long-term motor training (such as an athlete training for their sport) is associated with more involvement of the right side of the brain. Therefore, if you look at more experienced athletes, you should find that they show a relative trend towards left-handedness. For some reason, the sport that several researchers have chosen to study this is judo. Mikheev (2002) looked at expert judo players and controls, and found that although all but one called themselves right-handed, there was an increased involvement of the right-hand side of the brain in the experts. For instance, when experts had to listen and remember words they heard through only one ear, 20% of them did better using the left ear (right half of the brain), whereas all the controls did better with their right ear. The experts were also more likely to do certain tasks, such as using a screwdriver, with their left hand. But there is an alternative explanation, which is that it’s simply more advantageous to be able to throw your opponent to either side. Lee & Quan looked at the throws made by novice and elite judo players in practice matches. 85% of the throws by the non-elite category were right-sided and 15% left-sided. For the elite players, however, 53% were right-sided and 47% left sided. They also looked at how often the players switched sides. They found that non-elite players were 12 times more likely to rely on a single side when throwing. This is a very limited strategy compared to being able to throw in either direction, and is likely to limit one’s progression in the sport to higher levels. So it seems that becoming more ambidextrous is a result of getting an advantage, rather than through lots of practice. This may explain why few darts players switch hands, although I understand that Raymond Van Barnevelt did well using his left hand in a tournament when his right hand was injured. But then he is actually left-handed, so that probably doesn’t count. David Donner

It must be love - Part 2

One of my patients tried these new daily disposable multifocal lenses and got great vision at distance and near, so I was keen to try them again at tennis. I was expecting the distance vision to be better with the new prescription, but it wasn't - worse if anything - but still excellent for close things. The Mighty John was delighted to get me as a partner. He'd partnered his wife the day before and had to run around a lot, and was hoping I'd be able to do the same for him. There's a perception in the group that I'm much younger than the rest of them. Whilst it's true that I'm the youngest by a few years, I suspect I'm older than they think. And anyway, none of us are exactly in the first flush of youth. The Mighty John started slowly, but he's easily the best player, so even when half-fit is still a formidable opponent. For once I started well. Perhaps the close focus of the lenses was helping me to focus on the contact point especially well. TMJ started to get into his stride, so we beat French Nigel and The Reverend Ian 6-1. ( Are you listening, Bulldog Russell? No, I thought not). With both of us playing well, we breezed past the two Richards - Richard the Poke and Southpaw Richard - 6-0. We then faced Comic Bob and Jonathan the Slice, who had lost their previous two games 6-0, 6-0. So in theory this should have been a walk-over. But these are two wily old birds, who have numerous strategies for winning a game, only some of which actually involve playing tennis. It would be an exaggeration to say that Jonathan the Slice only has two shots. It would be an exaggeration, because he really only has one shot, with two variations. The first is a wicked fast backhand slice, that veers off the racket at improbable angles. This means that you are waiting for your partner to return it, when you realise that the ball has just whizzed past you. But the second variation is far more devilish. The shot is played with such spin and slice, that the counter-rotation of the ball is about ten times faster than its forward velocity. As the ball hovers over the net like a diabolo, you are faced with two unattractive alternatives, heightened by the cry of "Watch the spin!" from JtS. The first option is a volley, but you know that as soon as your racket makes any contact the ball will immediately ricochet into the bottom of the net. The second is to allow the ball to bounce, after which which it spins off in a completely unpredictable direction. The humiliation of your air-shot is compounded by the cry of "I told you to watch the spin!" from the other side of the net. There's only one weakness in these two shot variations: the majority of them fail to clear the net. But against us JtS suddenly finds his form, and he and Comic Bob break The Mighty John's opening serve. Comic Bob, never short of a comment, suggests that they were waiting for some better opposition before showing their true form. But this comment laid the seeds of their own destruction, because in that first game we weren't playing with quality. I in particular made a couple of bad mistakes. So they couldn't maintain the level of their play, and we moved into a 5-1 lead. At this point, Jonathan the Slice brought out one of his favourite tactics: "Last game counts seven!" There was time for a few more games after this, and TMJ and I moved into a 4-0 lead. Now, with only time for one more game, came the inevitable "Last game counts five!" There are times when one can play well, but for whatever reason it's not reflected in the score. But this wasn't one of those times. So The Mighty John and I adjourned to the bar, satisfied with our work, with the rather unusual score for the evening of 6-1, 6-0, 12-1, 9-0. David Donner

Friday, 1 June 2012

It must be love!

The only time I wear contact lenses is for playing tennis. there are some multifocal daily disposables just out, and I was keen to try them. They seemed very rigid, and not that easy to get in, but were comfortable enough once in, and seemed very clear for near things. Not 100% sure about the distance, but not bad. I'm playing with Bulldog Russell against Ian and French Nigel. I'm expecting a close game, but BR turns to me and says "We should beat these two easily". Unfortunately, BR only has one volume setting, so this comment is clearly audible to anyone within a 100 yards radius, including our opponents. No pressure then. BR starts well, unlike me, but the game's nicely poised at 3-3. "We need to raise our game; we should be winning easily" is BR's version of an inspirational team talk. I ignore him, and my game does start to improve. We go 4-3 up, but they pull as back to 4-4. "We can't possibly lose to these two" says BR, volume control, as ever, stuck on full.The pressure seems to be getting to him, and he starts making a lot of errors. We do lose, 6-4. "Whenever I've played those two before, I've always won easily". Thanks, BR, it must be playing with me then.Talk about reverse psychology! I was pretty pleased with the lenses, although they were a bit tricky to get out. I'll try a different power next time to see if I can get even better distance vision. David Donner

Monday, 21 May 2012

The £47 Million Kick

It’s suggested that if you add up the prize money, enhanced media rights and the increased value of the squad, winning the Champions League benefits the club to the tune of £110 million. The losers benefit by £63 million – a difference of £47 million. For Chelsea in 2008 and 2012, this came down to a single kick. In 2008, John Terry had the chance to win the cup, but missed his penalty when his non-kicking foot slipped and his shot sliced wide. In 2012, the final would again be decided by the non-kicking foot. When you take a penalty with an instep shot, the direction of the non-kicking foot is a pretty reliable (80%) guide to the direction the shot is going (Franks & Harvey 1997). If it’s a side foot shot, you need to look at the angle of the hips (Williams & Burwitz 1993). David Luiz gave a demonstration of the perfect penalty. A fast run-up made it difficult for the goalkeeper to see which way the non-kicking foot was facing. The shot was hit with such power and placement into the top corner that the goalkeeper could never have saved it anyway. Didier Drogba had a short run up which would have made it easier to spot that his non-kicking foot was facing slightly left, so the ball would go to Manuel Neuer’s right. However, Neuer didn’t spot it, and dived the wrong way. Of course if you’re a Chelsea supporter watching the ball hit the back of the net, the answer to the question “Where was the German?” is “Frankly, who cares?” (B Davies 1988). David Donner

Tuesday, 8 May 2012

Olympic Countdown - Hockey

Penalty corners - Quite a lot of research has been done on the visual strategies of goalkeepers in football when trying to save a penalty. Very little such research has been done in field hockey (as opposed to ice hockey). If the defensive team commits a foul inside the shooting circle, the attacking side are awarded a penalty corner. All the defending players but five (including the goalkeeper) must stay behind the back line, while the other six have to stay behind the centre line. One attacker pushes the ball towards his team mates just outside the circle. One of them stops the ball and another one tries to score. If the ball is hit, it has to stay quite low to the ground, making it easier for the keeper to spread himself to save it. However, a flick is allowed to go higher, leading to the development of the “drag flick”. The drag-flicker gets the ball on the shaft of the stick and slings it towards the goal. One of the best known exponents of this art was England’s Calum Giles. So the goalkeeper has two possible strategies. One would be to focus initially on the pusher, and to follow the ball all the time. The other would be to keep their focus on the stopper and the drag-flicker at the edge of the circle. About a third of all goals are scored on penalty corners, so it would be really useful to know what the best strategy is. Canal-Bruland et al (2010) presented skilled hockey goalkeepers with video-clips that were captured either with a moving camera that followed the ball, or with a stationary camera that was directed towards the stopper and drag-flicker. The video clips were occluded 80ms after ball release from the flicker’s stick. Participants indicated where they thought the ball would go by pushing a joy-stick to one of the four corners as if they had to block the ball. They found that when they were presented with a moving picture that started with the pusher and ended with the drag-flicker, the goalkeepers were more likely to overshoot their gaze, beyond where the ball was stopped by the stopper. This tended to be associated with poorer decision making. Goalkeepers who spent more time fixating the ball and stick area, rather than following the ball, tended to make more successful decisions, whether the camera was fixed or moving. Also, goalkeepers who waited longer before initiating a movement tended to be more successful. What’s still not known is what information precisely the best goalkeepers are using. Is it something to do with the angle of the stick or simply the early movement of the ball? Research from football suggests that the direction may be picked up early on, but you need to be able to see the early path of the ball in order to judge the height. With advances in digital photography, it should be possible to highlight the relevant areas so you can work out the early cues that are being given. Then, all (!) you have to do is train your goalkeeper to recognise the cues, and your drag-flicker to disguise them. David Donner

Monday, 23 April 2012

Meeting A World Cup Legend

I was fortunate enough to meet George Cohen recently – what a lovely bloke! He was mostly talking about his 1966 experiences and his successful battles with cancer. He did, however, remark that too many full backs are ball watching when they should be watching the player they’re marking. This means that they can often be seen running backwards half-turned, making it easy for their opponent to get past them. He said he’s seen coaches getting players to run along narrow lines and getting them to turn on the shout of “Turn”. No wonder the great man was horrified. Surely, even the most junior of coaches must realise that this is completely useless unless wingers are made to shout “Turn” every time they attack. It beggars belief that professional footballers are being coached in this way. It’s on a par with teaching people to dribble by setting out a slalom of cones. It’s already been 46 years since England won the World Cup. Until the principles of sports vision become more widely understood and practiced, it could be at least another 46 years before we win it again. David Donner

Wednesday, 18 April 2012

Olympic Countdown - Handball

The subject of discrimination against women in sport is a topical one, with a recent documentary by Gabby Logan for the BBC, and the controversy about the refusal of Augusta National to allow women members. If you’re refereeing a sporting event, a foul is a foul, and in theory it shouldn’t matter whether it’s made by a male or female athlete. However, it’s difficult to escape from seeing others as stereotypes. Research has shown that people explicitly expect and prefer that women show traits such as kindness and gentleness, and that men show confidence and aggressiveness (Eagly 2007; Deaux & Lafrance 1998). So it’s common for individuals of either gender to be more shocked by aggressive behaviour from women than from men (Deaux & Lafrance 1998; Knight, Guthrie, Page & Fabes, 2002). Indeed, female interactions are perceived as more than male interactions, even when both situations are similar (Condry & Ross, 1995). With regard to handball, Souchon et al (2004) found that male referees more frequently gave the ball back to the victim of aggressive behaviours in females than in male games, and that referees gave disciplinary punishments more frequently when fouls were made by women than by men. So it seems that referees do apply the rules of the sport differently according the gender of the players. There’s evidence that this bias can persist even at high levels of the sport. Kolnes (1995) found that some women playing for the top international Norwegian handball team thought that they are refereed very severely and unfairly when they behave too aggressively or are perceived as acting in a masculine manner. According to these women, severe punishments could be avoided by adopting a seductive and feminine (non-argumentative) attitude towards the referees, who are usually men. It’s possible that referees play advantage more often than men, if men are more skilful at being able to continue their play despite being fouled. However, this effect would be less likely to occur at the highest levels when women are more skilled. To investigate this further, Souchon et al (2009) filmed 30 matches (15 men’s and 15 women’s) from the First Division of the French Handball Championships. All the referees were men. In handball, there are two types of award that the referee can give when there’s a foul: award a 9-metre throw (give the ball back to the victim where the foul occurred); or award a 7-metre throw (a direct shot on goal like a football penalty). There are also three possible disciplinary sanctions: a yellow card warning; a 2-minute suspension from the game; or a red card, meaning permanent exclusion from the game. For the 9-metre throws, referees were more likely to punish female players than male players, but there was no difference for the 7-metre throws. So referees were more likely to mete out mild punishment (as opposed to no punishment) to female players, while giving severe punishments to the same extent to both sexes. There was no difference between the sexes when it came to disciplinary decisions. The lack of difference for severe offences and discipline may be because these decisions are much rarer in games. For instance, there were relatively few yellow cards or 2-minute suspensions, and no red cards in any of the 30 matches. Players averaged more than 150 transgressions in each match. Souchon gives “benign” and “hostile” sexism as possible explanations for the referees’ behaviour. They might hold the (subconscious) view that women have less sporting ability than men, so may be less able to withstand being fouled, so would be less likely to play advantage. They may also believe that a woman who falls during a game is not play-acting, whereas a man is more likely to “dive” (benign sexism). On the other hand, if they have a perception that women should not be aggressive, any aggressive behaviour they do show will be magnified, and more likely to be punished (hostile sexism). I've umpired a few ladies’ cricket games, and always enjoyed them. I’ve never had any disciplinary issues, but if they were to occur I’ll try and treat them the same as I would do in a men’s match. I still think I might be a bit shocked, though. David Donner

Monday, 2 April 2012

Olympic Countdown - Gymnastics

I’ve described what Joan Vickers has called the “Quiet Eye”, when experts fix their gaze on a particular place, usually just before making the required movement in their sport (such as a golfer about to putt). One would think this would be rather difficult for a gymnast performing multiple twists and turns, but it seems that expert gymnasts do actually have a similar strategy. Several investigators have found that vision is essential in to a stable landing after performing a somersault (Davlin et al, 2001; Luis & Tremblay, 2008). But until recently, there was little evidence to show exactly how this was achieved. To resolve this, Heinen (2011) got experts and apprentices to carry out a tucked back aerial somersault on a trampoline whilst wearing a helmet fitted with an infra-red camera that tracked their eye movements. One of the striking differences that were found between experts and apprentices was that experts didn’t blink at all during somersaults, whereas apprentices nearly always blinked. This is a strong indication that experts are using visual information to judge their body position more accurately. For eye fixations, the researchers defined a fixation as when the eyes were fixating a specific position for at least 100 milliseconds. They found that for experts, the longer they fixated during take-off, the more accurate were their landings. But this wasn’t true for apprentices. The reason could be related to take-off velocity. Take-off velocity is important because it relates to how long the athlete is in the air. They need enough flight-time to be able to complete the task accurately. It’s already been found that it’s easier to determine your speed through vision than from feedback from your muscles or ears (Lee et al, 1992). This suggests that through experience, experts are able to use visual information at the start of their somersault to adjust the time they take to extend their body, and thus make better landings (in the centre of the trampoline). There’s still plenty of research to be done, for instance finding out exactly what the experts are fixating. But there’s one obvious piece of advice to novice gymnasts. Keep your eyes open. David Donner

Thursday, 15 March 2012

Olympic Countdown - Fencing

It can take less than 300 milliseconds for an elite fencer to complete an attack. If you’re going to parry it away successfully, you really need to be able to read the direction of the attack as it’s about to be launched. Afterwards will probably be too late. This, not amazing reaction times, is the key to success in fencing. So the key question is what information do the experts get from studying their opponent that enables them to do this? Several attempts have been made to find out, notably Bard et al (1981) and Hagemann et al (2010). Bard found that fencers looked mostly at the hand guard, but this was true of both experts and novices. But if you’re looking at one place, it doesn’t mean that you can’t get information from other areas as well. So it could be that the experts were fixed on the hand guard, but were also able to use their peripheral vision so that they could pick up subtle differences in angle between upper and lower arms, or even between the lower arm and the wrist. Hagemann’s group used a variety of techniques, such as occluding areas of the body and fixing eye cameras to participants as they watched videos of an expert fencer launching attacks. They found that experts fixated the upper trunk area longer than advanced or novice groups, and their performance in saying where the attack was aimed was most severely affected when this area was occluded. They then tried highlighting this area to see if it helped novices predict the direction of attack any better. However, far from improving performance, it actually made it worse. The problem was that the area of the upper trunk actually included not just the upper part of the chest, but also the arm and the sword itself. Because the arm and sword would often be in front of the chest, it was impossible for the researchers to digitally occlude them without occluding at least part of the chest as well. And because they were highlighting such a large area (with a red patch), they were probably obscuring more than they were highlighting. You probably would have guessed that it would have been some part of the upper body, sword or arm that the experts were using to judge the attacks, rather than, say, the head or feet. What you really need to know is whether it’s just one crucial area or whether it’s the angles between them that are the key. A start would be to get the expert fencer to make attacks holding something really short, but not a sword. Ideally, you’d then attach something to areas of his clothing that only showed up in certain lights. By turning these areas on and off, you should be able to tell which areas are the crucial ones. You could then use something else to for the expert to wear that highlighted those areas to see if it helped with predictions. I’m almost tempted to do some research myself. David Donner

Thursday, 16 February 2012

Olympic Countdown - Equestrianism

Researchers at Nottingham Trent University have been studying the eye movements of horse riders. A show-jumper, an event rider, a cross-country rider and a non-competitive rider completed five rounds of a three-jump course wearing a spectacle-mounted device that tells the researchers where the rider is looking, and how long for. As they approached a jump, all the riders changed their point of fixation from the ground to the jump, and then to the ground beyond. The difference, however, was that the more experienced show-jumper focused on the top rail of the jump much sooner than each of the other riders – up to 3.05 seconds before take-off – and holds it there until take-off. It shouldn’t really be a surprise that in order to time your jump accurately, you need to focus on the obstacle, and not on the ground in front of it. In fact, Laurent, Dinh Phung & Ripoll (1989) have already shown that riders use the increasing size of the image of the obstacle that is formed on their retina to adjust the horse’s gait as it approaches the jump. It would be really interesting to know if the horse does this as well. The eyes of horses are much more widely spread than in humans, so they have a wider peripheral vision, but don’t tend to focus on specific objects as closely as we do. They are also less likely to have as good depth perception, so may not be as accurate at judging distances. They can learn when to jump, however, as long as they are allowed to keep their head up so they can focus on the top of the jump, like the rider. There has been a tendency to design jumps that test the rider, without taking into account the vision of the horse, but our knowledge is gradually improving. Stachurska et al (2002), for instance, found that horses exhibited refusals and “run-outs” when approaching walls, and that the second elements of combination fences prove more problematic than the first or third obstacle of combination fences. They also found that fences with a single colour (especially white) caused more problems than fences with contrasting colours. They also have problems when green is paired with yellow or blue in the colour of a fence. It’s very difficult, if not impossible, to attach eye-tracking cameras to a horse, partly because of the position of their eyes. But I suspect that horses can learn to focus on the top of an obstacle in order to time the jump, and can probably pick it up rather quicker than many riders. David Donner

Monday, 6 February 2012

The Calcutta Cup

Ever had the feeling that someone has been watching a different match to you? This was certainly the case when I turned on the radio after watching the England – Scotland match to hear Matt Dawson say how great England were in the second half. Really? They had two try- scoring opportunities, one from a Scottish mistake which they took, and one from a diagonal kick which was well covered. A good defensive effort certainly, but hardly a great performance, I would have thought. Although England was defensively strong as usual, they would still have lost the game if they’d been playing a side that wasn’t as good at butchering chances as the Scots. Fortunately, if you wanted to know what was going wrong, Jonathan Davies showed the answer. He pointed out when Scotland had a 4-on-3 situation, instead of exploiting it, they went through a pre-determined move with a decoy runner. When their deep runner came through, Strettle was able to come off his wing and make the tackle. And it’s not just the backs that need to know how to pass the ball. In the same match, Richie Gray makes a great break, but then passes the ball behind Strokosch. Then Ross Rennie tries to pass too late when there’s a clear overlap, so his pass is caught up with Foden’s tackle. And on one of the rare moments when England had the chance to create something, a simple pass from Robshaw would have put Ashton clear, but instead he fires the ball above his head. All this suggests teams that are not being put under pressure in their training, but are going through a series of worked moves. You can’t do all the players’ thinking for them, and you certainly can’t see for them. They need to be drilled in looking for space and exploiting it, not putting on some kind of demonstration of synchronised rugby. In football, the players at Barcelona are given the responsibility to change their tactics during a match to respond to the opposition’s tactics. Their players start learning this from the age of 11. The next day saw an example of a player who hasn’t yet had all the vision coached out of him. George North makes a powerful run to the outside shoulder of Gordon D’Arcy, and then offloads like Sonny Bill Williams out the back of his hand to take out three Irish defenders. Good anticipation from Davies and a nice running angle means a try that proved to be the difference between the two sides. The message is simple: let your players think for themselves; let them look for themselves; put them in challenging situations often enough, they’ll make the right decisions eventually. If you don’t, you can’t complain when they mess it up. David Donner

Friday, 20 January 2012

Olympic Countdown - Diving

At the World Aquatics Championships in Shanghai in July last year, the Mexican pair of Sanchez and Garcia completed a dive which involved 4½ inward somersaults. With a degree of difficulty of 4.1, it’s the hardest dive in the world. When everything’s spinning in a whirl, is vision important, or do the divers rely on an internal clock to tell them when to prepare for entry into the water? Divers actually use a “visual spotting” technique. They’re able to fixate on objects such as the diving board, the water or the ceiling which tell them how many somersaults and twists they’ve completed, and when it’s time to kick out of the dive. When they practice on the trampoline, divers can learn this technique by placing a brightly-coloured object on the side of the trampoline, and this same object can be placed at the end of the diving board when practising diving into water. A “somersault simulator” is an apparatus something like a gymnast’s high bar to which the athlete is safely attached when performing somersaults. This provides the kind of controlled environment that could be used to see if performance can be improved when bright objects are placed on the floor and elsewhere for visual spotting. I know of only one attempt to do this (by Naundorf et al in 2002) which was inconclusive, but I think the potential is there of the right kind of targets are used in the right places. It’s probably a bit late for these Olympics, though. David Donner