SI Vault
August 08, 2011
Ryan Howard and Rafael Nadal don't have quicker reflexes than you do. They hit the fastest pitches and return the hardest serves because they can see the future
Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font
August 08, 2011

It's All About Anticipation

Ryan Howard and Rafael Nadal don't have quicker reflexes than you do. They hit the fastest pitches and return the hardest serves because they can see the future

View CoverRead All Articles
1 2 3

This science contradicts some of sports' hoariest beliefs. The exhortation of every Little League coach to "keep your eye on the ball"? Impossible. "If you monitor the eyes of batters, the gaze stops tracking the ball before they hit," Abernethy says. "You don't have a visual system fast enough to track the angular changes that occur over the last few meters of the flight." Nonetheless, he says, keep your eye on the ball is probably sound advice, because it keeps your head still and pointed in the right direction to gather the necessary information from the pitcher's body.

"The real advice would be, 'Watch the shoulder,'" Abernethy says, "but [even] that doesn't help. It actually makes [players] worse." That's because forcing an athlete to think consciously about an automated task destroys his ability to anticipate and puts him back in the realm of reaction.

Coaches who call timeouts to ice free throw shooters and field goal kickers are trying to exploit what researchers have codified: Break up the routine; get the player thinking. University of Chicago psychologist Sian Beilock, author of the book Choke, has demonstrated that, in golf, pressure-induced poor putting can sometimes be overcome with simple remedies such as singing to yourself or counting backward by threes. For automated tasks like putting or placekicking, mild distraction, rather than intense concentration, may be the best approach because it keeps the process out of the higher-conscious areas of the brain, where what Beilock calls "paralysis by analysis" takes root.

Another implication of studies of expert athletes is that pitching machines are probably rather useless for developing the most important skills involved in hitting. While they might be good for practicing mechanics or developing strength, they fall short in terms of sharpening the anticipation skills that are needed to hit live pitching. "The machine is completely predictable," Abernethy says, "which is the antithesis of the natural task."

This may also explain why a pitcher with a strange windup, like Hideo Nomo, could thrive in his rookie season (2.54 ERA) but never touch that performance in the years that followed. Hitters had gathered sufficient visual data on his motion. The importance of visual clues also explains why Yankees closer Mariano Rivera is nearly impossible to hit when he's on his game. Perry Husband, a longtime hitting coach in California who has studied millions of major league pitches, says videos show that Rivera's motion for his cutter and four-seam fastball are identical—as is the flight of the ball three quarters of the way to the plate (beyond the 200-millisecond line) before it breaks to one side or the other of the strike zone. "Everything he throws is lying to the hitter's eyes," Husband says.

And sometimes what the pitcher throws might lie to more than the hitter. Among Eddie Feigner's tricks was a pitch in which he would whirl his arm in several directions before throwing from behind his back. Or so it seemed. Feigner would actually throw the ball into his own glove. The catcher would then stand up as if having caught the ball and throw it to first as if there had been a strikeout.

Often an umpire would call the strike, perhaps not wanting to admit the embarrassment of losing sight of the ball. Then Feigner usually let the ump in on the joke, so the count could be corrected. But during a game in Canada once, Feigner didn't let on—because after the umpire called a strike, the batter argued vociferously that the pitch had been high. Based on the cues he picked up to anticipate Feigner's pitch, he may well have been right.

1 2 3