Athletes in the Zone May See the World Differently

Two subsequent studies found the same pattern when the hole was no longer in view, and when they could still see the hole, thus ruling out the role of memory. And again, the results were consistent, achievers saw it as bigger, losers saw it as smaller.

Witt thinks this optical illusion could play a role in streaks and slumps.

"Does the perception that the hole was bigger, or smaller, than it really is persist?" she asked. "Does it perpetuate itself? Then perhaps it's linked to streaks and slumps."

Even the best golfers experience periods when they are hot, or cold. Could it be because the hole appears larger over an extended period of time, or smaller?

Of course, the golf cup is only one of many obstacles on the course, but Witt think the perception of size extends to other parts of the game.

"Putting is where you score, so I think the hole is a big factor," she said. "But I think you would find similar effects on other parts of the course. The green probably looks a lot farther away if you are having trouble getting it there, and the fairway probably looks so much more narrow if you are slicing the ball, and the sand trap probably looks a lot bigger."

"So I think this effect is probably prevalent throughout the whole round."

And it probably has an impact in all sports, she added, although in some cases it's harder to measure.

Wind can be a demon in her favorite sport of Frisbee, she said, "so if somebody is upwind they probably look farther away compared to someone who is downwind." Now she would like to figure out how to use that information to her advantage.

"It's possible that by using this information we can develop various ways to improve performance, based on what we know about perception," she said. "We're actually working on some things right now to make that happen. If it works, we'll let you know."

Lee Dye is a former science writer for the Los Angeles Times. He now lives in Juneau, Alaska.

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