Washington, June 11 : With Wimbledon knocking on the door, tennis fans must be craving to see Rafael Nadal or Roger Federer doing their stints on the green court. But what is it that makes these tennis stars outperform those who don't play the game? Well, the answer lies in the better-developed perceptual or visual information processing skills of these champs, according to a new study.
The study at Federer's home country of Switzerland has revealed that tennis players are often better than the rest of us at certain time-related, perceptual skills, such as speed discrimination. And that's what makes these players to perform consistently faster and more accurately than novices at skills like the anticipation of the ball's direction.
According to Leila Overney and colleagues at the Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne (EPFL), in sports like tennis having superior visual skills gives players a real advantage.
In sports research, the cognitive tasks used are generally sport-specific. For example, tennis players' visual anticipation skills are tested with videotapes of expert tennis players performing serves or ground strokes. However, in this study, researchers used perceptual rather than cognitive tasks, which were unrelated to tennis - or sports in general.
The researchers wanted to find out whether playing tennis improves only specific aspects of visual perception that are beneficial in a game of tennis (such as tennis ball speed estimation) or whether more basic perceptual skills, such as speed detection - which can be improved with training but which aren't specific to one sport - are also improved.
For this, they compared the performance of skilled tennis players to that of non-athletes, as well as to a group of other athletes (triathletes). They carried out seven visual tests, covering a wide range of perceptual functions including motion and temporal processing, object detection and attention, each requiring the participants to push buttons based on their responses to the computer-based tasks and each related to a particular aspect of visual perception.
As tennis players must react quickly in a fast-paced environment, so participants were tested on three temporal tasks. For instance, to evaluate the participants' speed discrimination ability, they were asked to watch two displays of moving dots and select which display contained the faster-moving dots. Tennis players performed the best. Speed discrimination could, then, be a fundamental skill that is influenced by tennis playing.
While performing another task, which investigated the participants' ability to detect coherent motion within a field of randomly moving dots, the tennis players also performed more accurately (although they weren't faster) than the non-players, which was expected given the need for tennis players to focus on ball trajectories. These tasks didn't involve a tennis-related context, indicating that these are generalised, underlying skills instead of tennis-specific abilities.
In 1 of the 2 object-based tasks the participants were required to spot the presence or absence of a tennis ball in either a tennis-based scene (the 2005 Roland Garros tournament) or a non-tennis-based scene (landscapes or other sports scenes). Tennis players were much more accurate at spotting the ball in the tennis scenes, although not in the others.
The researchers reasoned it by saying that some perceptual skills are positively associated with tennis playing, including speed processing, at which tennis players are often faster and more accurate. This may either be because tennis improves temporal processing or that better temporal processing allows people to become better tennis players.
But, these effects were quite small, which may be because we all use some of these skills on a daily basis (when driving a car, for example) - tennis players are only significantly better than the rest of us at spotting tennis balls in a tennis scene, and not at spotting a cat running across the road while they are driving.
The researchers believe the study opens the way for future research in the field. As some basic visual skills, such as motion detection and speed discrimination, can be improved with practice, training these tasks might lead to improved tennis performance and could help wannabe tennis stars of the future.
The study is reported in the latest issue of PLoS ONE.