The Mechanism Of Reading

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I recently read an article on how it is that athletes of various sports are able to hit fast moving objects, including in sports such as cricket and baseball where players literally have to be executing the required action before the bowler / pitcher releases the ball. The focus is on the cool technology that is used in testing and training (VR, cool!). More importantly, it has a pretty nice overview of the research in the field. It ends poorly, but I will get to that in due time. Here are a couple of notes that I made, with my comments in italics, but please read the article and follow the original papers cited.

“If you can pick up a cue earlier, that gives you more time to make a controlled movement”
It is not how fast you move, but when you start that is important. Everything is timing. Everything is reading.

Top competitors use three broad classes of information to decide on their course of action.
– Assessment of an opponent’s most likely actions given the state of play and what they know of that opponent’s favoured tactics.
– Observing the opponent’s body movements
– For fine-tuning their play, the flight of the ball itself.
The first of these explains the role and use of scouting information. The second of these is what we miss in many drill situations. Interestingly, the flight of the ball is the last thing. Experts take the vast majority of their information before the ball is even released. Coach directed activities, such as drill that focus on movement by restricting the information available for the learner, and machines, do not allow players to develop essential skills.

“Animals do not sequentially perceive, decide and then act. The relationship is dynamic and reciprocal — perception guides and modifies actions, and actions constantly provide new sensory information. Perception–action coupling, is continuous and sophisticated…. Although a player must commit to a certain shot at some point, that shot’s execution is constantly adjusted according to the continuing stream of information arriving.”
One of the differences between experts and novices in the studies where players’ vision was restricted at different points was that if experts actually ‘played the shot’ their decisions were much better than if they described the action in some other way. Which neatly segues into…

“Scientists are wary of the risk that probing certain skills might bring into conscious awareness processes that are normally executed subconsciously.”
Coaches normally pride themselves on being able to explain to the players what do and how. Imagine if the best thing to do was to not only not explain things to the players, but to not even try to understand. That seems like a tough ask.

Unfortunately, the otherwise excellent article finishes with an idea that is patently ridiculous.

“The scouts, the coaches, the players — they know bullshit, they know snake oil.”

I would encourage the scientists engaged in this research to read Moneyball before making such outlandish claims.


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