Saturday, July 27, 2013

Baseball Vision and Chess Vision Function in Very Similar Ways

Superficially it may seem that hitting a baseball and finding the best chess move are completely different activities mentally, psychologically and physically but in fact baseball vision and chess vision are structured the same way--and to a large extent they are both learned skills, not natural talents. A fascinating Sports Illustrated article by David Epstein titled WHY PUJOLS CAN'T (AND A-ROD WOULDN'T) TOUCH THIS PITCH explains that elite performers--whether they are baseball hitters or chess Grandmasters--do not have better vision or quicker reaction times than regular people; in fact, Albert Pujols--one of the greatest hitters of all-time--ranked on the 66th percentile for reaction time when he was tested by researchers from Washington University in St. Louis. So why can Pujols hit Major League fastballs so effectively and why is he not able to hit the pitch mentioned in the article's title, a softball thrown by Jennie Finch?

The answers to those two questions have nothing to do with reaction time and everything to do with how the brain "chunks" data. Epstein explains:

For four decades, scientists have been constructing a picture of how elite athletes intercept speeding objects. The intuitive explanation is that the Albert Pujolses and Roger Federers of the world simply have the genetic gift of quicker reflexes, which give them more time to react to the ball. Except that isn't true.

When people are tested for their simple reaction time--how fast they can press a button in response to a light--most of them, whether they are teachers, lawyers or pro athletes, take around 200 milliseconds, or one fifth of a second. That is about the minimum time it takes for the retina at the back of the human eye to receive information, for that information to be conveyed across synapses--the gaps between neurons, each of which takes a few milliseconds to cross--to the primary visual cortex in the back of the brain, and for the brain to send a message to the spinal cord that puts the muscles in motion. All this happens in the blink of an eye. (It takes 150 milliseconds just to execute a blink when a light is shone in your face.) But as quick as 200 milliseconds is, in the realm of 100-mph baseball pitches and 140-mph tennis serves, it is far too slow.

A typical major league fastball travels about 10 feet in just the 75 milliseconds that it takes for sensory cells in the retina to confirm that a baseball is in view and for information about the flight path and velocity of the ball to be relayed to the brain. The entire flight of the baseball from the pitcher's hand to the plate takes just 400 milliseconds. And because it takes half that time merely to initiate muscular action, a major league batter has to know where he is swinging shortly after the ball leaves the pitcher's hand--well before it's even halfway to the plate.

The window for actually making contact with the ball, when it is in reach of the bat, is five milliseconds, and because the angle of the ball relative to the hitter's eye changes so rapidly as the ball gets closer to the plate, the advice to "keep your eye on the ball" is impossible to follow. Humans don't have a visual system fast enough to track the ball all the way in. A batter could just as well close his eyes once the ball is halfway to home plate. Given the speed of the pitch and the limitations of our physiology, it seems to be a miracle that anybody hits the ball at all.

When Janet Starkes tested the visual perception abilities of elite Canadian volleyball players and novice Canadian volleyball players by showing them still photos for a fraction of a second and asking them if a ball was visible, she made a fascinating discovery: the elite players could tell at a glance whether or not a ball was in a picture, while the novice players could not. She later tested field hockey players and got the same result. Epstein writes:

Not only could elite field hockey players tell in less time than the blink of an eye whether or not a ball was in the frame, but they could also accurately reconstruct the playing field. This held true among basketball and soccer players too. It was as if every elite athlete miraculously had a photographic memory when it came to her sport.

The question, then, is how important these perceptual abilities are to top athletes--and whether they are the result of genetic gifts. And there's no better place to look for an answer than in a type of competition in which the action is slow, deliberate and devoid of the constraints of muscle and sinew.

That brings us straight to chess and the famous study conducted by Adriaan de Groot in the 1940s. De Groot, a Dutch psychologist and chess Master, showed various chess positions from actual games to players ranging in strength from amateur to elite Grandmaster. Grandmasters had instant, almost total recall of the chess positions, while the weaker players had correspondingly less accurate recall--but when William G. Chase and Herbert A. Simon repeated de Groot's experiment in 1973 they also showed the players random positions of pieces that could not occur in a real game and they made an important discovery: the Grandmasters could not remember the random positions any better than the amateurs could. The critical difference between a Grandmaster's recall and an amateur's recall is that the Grandmaster "chunks" information: for instance, instead of seeing a Bishop and three pawns, a Grandmaster sees the formation known as a "fianchettoed Bishop." Similarly, a great hitter is not actually watching a pitched ball--as mentioned above, the human visual system is not capable of tracking the ball in real time--but rather he is picking up subtle cues from the pitcher's body such as shoulder position and hand location. Starkes' elite volleyball players could quickly find the ball based on viewing the picture as an organic whole instead of many disparate parts--and that is exactly how a Grandmaster views a chessboard.

Epstein writes, "Studies that track the eye movements of experienced performers, whether chess players, pianists, surgeons or athletes, have found that as they gain experience, they are quicker to sift through visual information and separate the wheat from the chaff. Experts swiftly discard irrelevant input and cut to the data that are most important in determining their next move. While novices dwell on individual pieces or players, experts focus more attention on spaces between pieces or players that are relevant to the unifying relationship of parts in the whole."

This ability to see "the unifying relationship of parts in the whole" is crucial to the success of a great tennis player like Roger Federer, a great boxer like Muhammad Ali and a great basketball rebounder like Dennis Rodman; a novice waits to see the tennis ball, the incoming punch or the basketball hitting the rim but an expert takes in the whole picture at once by deciphering visual cues learned from hours and hours of practice. I know from my personal experience playing pickup basketball that some players just have an inexplicable knack to go get the ball, a knack that is often not the product of being the quickest player, the strongest player or the best jumper. Similarly, my experience as an Expert level chess player is that I can "see" patterns and tactics quicker than the vast majority of chess players but that Masters and Grandmasters "see" patterns and tactics even quicker; I have a particularly vivid memory of watching a young Hikaru Nakamura--who became the youngest master in U.S. history, a record that has since been broken--glance at an endgame position that had puzzled two strong Masters for the better part of a half hour and almost instantly "see" the best sequence of moves for both sides. There is talent involved in such wizardry but I think that many people underestimate just how much hard work is involved as well.

So, if Pujols is a Grandmaster of seeing baseball pitches then why can't he hit Finch's softball pitches? Epstein notes, "Since Pujols had no mental database of Finch's body movements, her pitch tendencies or even the spin of a softball, he could not predict what was coming, and he was left reacting at the last moment...It is only by recognizing body cues and patterns unconsciously that Pujols can determine whether or not he should swing at a ball when it has barely left the pitcher's hand." Pujols' advantage on a baseball diamond is not physical or genetic as much as it is the product of years of training his mind and his body to perform one specific task; facing Finch is as perplexing to him as it was for a Grandmaster to try to memorize a nonsensical chess position that cannot be "chunked" into logical constituent parts.

Epstein concludes, "...the perceptual sports skills that separate experts from dilettantes are learned, or downloaded (like software), through practice. They don't come standard as part of the human machine. That fact helped spawn the best-known theory in modern sports expertise, and one that has no place for genes."

The theory in question is referred to variously as the "10,000 hour rule" or "deliberate practice" and it suggests that mastery of a sport, a musical instrument or almost any other endeavor is closely linked to putting in 10,000 hours of practice to hone one's perception and technique.

In Basketball, Chess and Boxing, Part II, I quoted Philip E. Ross, who wrote in Scientific American about the importance of this kind of deliberate practice: "To accumulate this body of structured knowledge, Grandmasters typically engage in years of effortful study, continually tackling challenges that lie just beyond their competence. The top performers in music, mathematics and sports appear to gain their expertise in the same way, motivated by competition and the joy of victory."

Does this mean that anyone can become a Major League baseball player or a Grandmaster? Of course not. Many skills and attributes are necessary to reach the highest level in any field. However, it does mean that the seemingly supernatural way that a baseball player quickly "sees" a pitch and that a Grandmaster instantly "sees" a winning move is not in fact supernatural at all but rather the product of hard work. We cannot all become pro baseball players or Grandmasters but we all can become better at what we most love to do if we are willing to work very hard at it; that should provide motivation to keep trying to reach whatever your potential is, as opposed to lamenting that you may not be able to become the absolute best at something: Albert Pujols and Hikaru Nakamura worked very hard to fulfill their respective potentials and they set great examples for all of us to follow: focus on the learning process and the work instead of being preoccupied with possible outcomes.

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