Athletes in the Zone May See the World Differently

New study suggests that athletic performance can affect visual perception.

ByABC News
November 25, 2008, 4:24 PM

Aug. 5, 2008 — -- Want to know why Tiger Woods is so good at golf? It may be becausewhen his game is on, he sees the hole as bigger than it really is.

At least that's one implication in a study of how perception affectsperformance -- or possibly the other way around, how performance affectsperception.

Jessica Witt, a research psychologist at Purdue University and aworld-class athlete herself, is the lead author of a report on theresearch in the current issue of Psychonomic Bulletin and Review.Conventional wisdom holds that perception is based chiefly on visualcues that come into the eye, but Witt thinks that's only part of thestory.

Her research, both on golfers and softball players, indicates thatactual performance plays a key role in how athletes see theirenvironment. Some of the cues are coming from their performance, nottheir eyes.

Witt and her fellow researchers, Sally A. Linkenauger, Jonathan Z.Bakdash and Dennis R. Proffitt of the University of Virginia,Charlottesville, conducted three experiments involving bothexperienced golfers and duffers, to see if playing well, or badly,affected their perception of the size of the hole.

The results showed that only the players who were playing wellperceived the hole as being bigger than it really is.

"Only actual performance affected the recalled sizes of the golf cup,"the study says. The players who thought they were playing well, butreally were not, did not see the hole as bigger.

So, does that mean perception affects performance, or is it the otherway around?

"At this point it's completely up in the air," said Witt, a member ofthe U.S. Frisbee team that won the 2005 gold medal at the World Games."If I were to speculate, I would say it's probably both ways. If yousee a bigger hole you are going to be more confident, and that mayactually make you putt better." But she can't rule out the possibilitythat you see a bigger hole because you are putting better. Confusing,eh?

It may sound like much ado about nothing, but there's a serious sideto the research, sponsored by the National Institutes of Health. Ifperception affects performance, it may be possible for people toimprove their performance by mastering their perception. Witt saidthat's what she's working on now.