Sports are as much a mental game as a physical one. Here’s what scientists know about one key skill–reorienting.

Have you got what it takes to become an Olympic contender? Take this simple test. Hold out a hand. Position the tips of your thumb and middle finger so that a half-inch space exists between them. Then ask a friend to hold the end of a ruler so that the 1-inch mark hangs between the two fingertips. Have your friend drop the ruler without warning. Catch the ruler as fast as you can between your two fingertips. Note the number on the ruler where you caught it. Now switch roles and note where your friend catches the ruler. The person with the lower number has the faster reaction time.

Was yours the faster time? Then you must have more of what makes a great athlete, right? Wrong! Scientific studies have shown that great athletes don’t react more quickly than anyone else does. Muhammad Ali, the champion boxer and Olympic gold medalist who bragged that he could “float like a butterfly and sting like a bee,” had only an average reaction time.

Athletic success, it seems, is determined by something other than last reflexes. That “something” is the ability to act–and not act–on what you see, according to new studies.


Imagine yourself dribbling a basketball down a court. What do you see before you? On the left stands the power forward, posted up close to the basket. Directly ahead, the shooting guard is spotting up on the perimeter. To the right, another forward is keeping an opponent out of the paint. Behind that forward, another teammate is moving toward the basket for a rebound. And so on.

All that visual information strikes your retinas–the layers of tiny, light-sensitive cells at the back of each eye–at the same time. From there, the information travels via the optic nerve to the brain.

So much visual data coming at you all at once might be too much to handle, except that the brain does an expert job at editing. It focuses on just one piece of information in your entire field of view at any one time. That act of focusing is what psychologists called attention.

Human attention is so focused that the mind is unaware of many things that the eyes happen to be looking at. In one lab experiment, subjects followed the movements of bouncing balls on a video screen. When the subjects were asked later if they had seen a gorilla moving around the screen, most said no. Their attention to the bouncing balls made them totally “blind” to the gorilla. That “blindness” is called change blindness, according to James Enns, a professor of psychology at the University of British Columbia.

Change blindness is the cause of many car accidents, said Enns. Numerous reports have described drivers plowing into pedestrians or even trains right in front of them. “The drivers looked, but they didn’t see,” said Enns. “Their attention had been focused on something in their field of view other than what they were looking straight at.”


So what does visual attention have to do with sports? To find out, Enns tested young hockey players who had different playing skills. What Enns found was that the elite players were much better than the average players at reorienting. They could switch their visual attention from one thing to another more quickly and with greater accuracy.

“Hockey players need to monitor a whole bunch of different things on the ice,” said Enns. “The highly skilled players were the ones who were better at responding–or not responding–to all the different things happening in their environment.”

Superior visual attention might have been what National Hockey League goalie Mike Liut was referring to when he was interviewed once about hockey megastar Wayne Gretzky. “I’d see him come down the ice and immediately start thinking, ‘What don’t I see that Wayne’s seeing right now?'” said Liut.


Not every sport requires superior reorienting, says Enns. Such ability is necessary only for what Enns calls open-skill sports–those in which the athlete has a wide field of visual information. Volleyball, soccer, basketball, and tennis are some open-skill sports.

Enns labels sports that don’t have a wide field of visual information closed-skill sports. Swimming and sprinting are two examples. The best closed-skill athletes are those who can focus their attention on one location in space and block out all other distractions that might otherwise slow them down.


Enns doesn’t know whether the best open-skill athletes are born with a superior ability to reorient or whether that ability comes with practice. “All we know at the moment is that there is a link between their sports skills and their skill at reorienting,” he said.


Examine these two photographs.

  • How are they different?
  • How long does it take you to find the difference?
  • Why is this a test of visual attention?
  • Why might some people take longer to find the difference than others?

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