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