Score in the dark with anticipation and prediction!

by Dr. Dan Laby

In a recent video, soccer star Ronaldo was able to score a goal in the dark. How could he do this? How was he able to get his foot or his body on the ball, if he couldn’t see it? Similarly, how can a batter hit a pitch or tennis player return a serve that is moving at incredible speeds? All of these actions have something in common – Anticipation! Having this ability allows Ronaldo to score a goal in the dark with anticipation and prediction.

Anticipation and Prediction

Anticipation or Prediction is like seeing into the future. Basically If you can see something in the present then with the proper level of vision and experience you should be able to make a pretty accurate guess at where it will be in the future.

This skill is not unique to athletes, non-athletes use it every day when, for example, they cross the street. When you step off the curb into the street you (should) look to see if any cars are coming. If you do see a car, you should be able to pretty quickly judge its speed. With that you can decide if it will be crossing your path while you are crossing the street. If it appears that you may be in danger based on that prediction, you stay put before crossing.

Athletes employ the exact same skill, although often much more refined, when they compete. What visual skills are needed?

  1. Optimal vision (ability to detect size as well as contrast in a short viewing time)
  2. Perfect depth perception
  3. Refined ability to process visual information quickly and accurately
  4. Excellent ability to make a well timed and accurate visually guided motor action

Basically, all the skills of the Vision Pyramid are needed to pull this off!

Ronaldo scores in the dark!

For example, in the SkySports documentary, the lights where tuned off at two different times. Initially the lights are turned off as the ball is kicked towards Ronaldo. In this case it is pretty easy for Ronaldo to score. In the second trial, the lights where turned off just as his teammate kicks the ball. Ronaldo doesn’t see any of the ball movement but is still able to use his body to score the goal.

The first example is easy for Ronaldo. All he needs to do is in his mind draw a dotted line from where the ball is when the lights are turned off, to were it will be when he makes contact. Seeing the ball already in the air makes this process pretty straightforward. The second task is a bit more difficult as the ball has not moved. In this case, Ronaldo must observe the foot, the angle of the foot as well as the speed of the foot prior to striking the ball. With this he can predict and anticipate the balls flight path. He also will know where he must be in order to make contact and score.

Certainly, an athlete of Ronaldo’s ability and experience is able to achieve this extremely difficult task. It is not something that is impossible to learn – meaning anyone can do it with the correct training and practice!

The power of the brain

Thats not to say that it is easy. It is estimated that every computer in the world would need to work together in order to make the same number of calculations as an athlete does when in the game! In fact, simply making the motor movement is itself an extremely complicated brain activity. For example, the brain calculations to move a single piece on the chess board takes more brain activity than deciding what move to make.

Scientific Research

In a 2006 manuscript published in the scientific literature, Prof Abernethy in Australia showed that highly skilled athletes are able to read their opponent and based on very early information decide or anticipate the path of the target (in this case a cricket ball).

This also explains, at least in part, why athletes have such fast reaction times. You can imagine that if you can anticipate an event, then you can begin to react to it earlier than another competitor who is not able to predict or anticipate as well. That early movement will lead to faster reaction times.

How can we train this ability

This ability can be trained with several different sports vision devices.