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Because top hitters react no faster, on average, than the general population, the only way they can hit the ball better is to anticipate where it's going long before it gets there. Compared with lower-level players, Abernethy found, pros can tell where the ball is going much more accurately, much earlier and with much less information. For instance, top tennis players can tell from the pre-serve movement of their opponent's body—sometimes just tiny shifts of the torso—whether a serve will be on their forehand or backhand. Average players, in contrast, must wait to see the motion of the racket, losing valuable time.
Abernethy has also found that when he deletes everything but the hand, wrist and elbow of a cricket bowler from a video, elite players in some cases still see enough to determine where the ball is headed. "There's significant information between the hand and arm, where they get cues for making judgments," Abernethy says. In badminton, if he edits out the forearm and the racket, top players are reduced nearly to novice level, an indication that seeing the lower arm is critical to decision making in that sport. And it doesn't even matter if the arm doesn't look like an arm. Top players still exhibited anticipatory prowess when Abernethy replaced human joints with points of light in digital simulations.
And yet, professional baseball players were unable to touch Finch or Feigner even without any perceptual impediments. That's because they simply have not developed the mental data to allow them to anticipate such unfamiliar movements—a skill that comes only with years of exposure and practice.
Before occlusion studies shed light on perceptual expertise in sports (the first significant tests were performed by Canadian researcher Janet Starkes on volleyball players in 1975), studies of chess masters were beginning to illuminate the underlying processes. In famous experiments starting in the 1940s, Dutch psychologist and chess master Adriaan de Groot gave grandmasters and club chess players five seconds to look at chessboards with the pieces arranged in game scenarios. Then the arrangement was taken away, and De Groot had the players reconstruct the board they had just seen. Grandmasters could remember the position of nearly every piece, while decent club players could reconstruct only about half the board. De Groot and subsequent researchers determined that the masters were "chunking" information—rather than remember the position of every piece separately, the grandmasters grasped small chunks of meaningful information, which allowed them to place the pieces. We all use this strategy to an extent in daily life. For example, while it would be difficult to remember 15 random words, it's much less difficult to remember a coherent 15-word sentence because one need only recall bits of meaning and grammar, which coordinate the order of words in your head.
Moreover, to test whether the grandmasters' skill is the result of game experience or prodigious memory, psychologists have presented master and club players with chess boards containing pieces randomly arranged in a way that did not make sense in the context of a game. In that circumstance the experts' memories are no better than the club players'.
What major league players and pro tennis and cricket athletes seem to do is to synthesize and group information about the human body based on their playing experience. Give them unfamiliar data, such as Jennie Finch's underhand pitching motion, and the years they've spent taking mental pictures of a pitcher's motion and the rotation of the ball are less useful. The human chessboard becomes suddenly more random, and the players are left to react rather than to anticipate.
The same goes for quarterbacks. Peyton Manning would probably have trouble recalling the exact position of randomly distributed players in the Colts' locker room, but show him those players positioned on a football field, and he would be better at recalling the arrangement because each segment—the positioning of the defensive backs relative to his receivers, for example—has an underlying, unifying meaning for him. That's why crafty defensive coordinators attempt to disguise a defense: They try to forestall Manning's ability to predict the future using cues from patterns he's seen before.
Additionally, a quarterback, like a baseball batter, does not have time to consciously analyze everything he sees. Despite the fact that Manning has spent thousands of hours breaking down film, it's impossible for him to recall everything he's seen in the video room. Instead, just as Ryan Howard unconsciously marshals a lifetime of data on pitchers' body movements, Manning processes all that he knows about how defensive schemes react to various offensive formations. If Howard or Manning had to sort through what they had previously seen in order to make a decision, he would take too long and certainly fail. It has to be automatic.
Brain-imaging studies have shown that when people are first learning a skill such as driving a car, they engage the higher-conscious areas of the brain such as the cerebral cortex. But with practice, the skill becomes automated and moves to more primitive brain areas like the cerebellum. Thus experienced drivers can maneuver a car with far less active attention, at least until faced with unanticipated obstacles. And quarterbacks can choose where to throw while under pressure without consciously thinking back on every defensive arrangement they've ever seen.
Phillip L. Ackerman, a professor of psychology at Georgia Tech who studies skill acquisition, uses a military analogy to describe a quarterback's decision-making process: "It's an if-then task. If you recognize a certain pattern, you react to it. And you have to do it without thinking about it. It's like a soldier taking apart a weapon when it jams. You learn it to the level where you can do it without thinking, because people are shooting at you."