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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
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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

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Barry Bonds went down on three pitches, didn't even swing. Albert Pujols and Mike Piazza couldn't make contact. Paul Lo Duca, Larry Walker, Richie Sexson, Dmitri Young: K, K, K, K. A-Rod took the wise course and decided not to even step into the box. The best any big leaguer fared against Jennie Finch, the 6'1" former softball ace who took on baseball players in 2005 on Fox's This Week in Baseball, was Sean Casey's dink to the right side.

Coming from 43 feet away in the upper-60-mph range, Finch's heater takes about the same time to get to the plate as a mid-90s major league fastball. Nothing unusual for the world's greatest hitters in terms of speed. And yet big league players have a history of feckless whiffing, against underhand pitchers.

Beginning in the 1940s, softball pitcher Eddie Feigner and his three position players, known as The King and His Court, barnstormed the country and showed up baseball players by winning four against nine. In a 1964 exhibition at Dodger Stadium, Feigner—the Meadowlark Lemon of the team, hiding the ball and joking with the audience—struck out Willie Mays, Willie McCovey, Brooks Robinson, Maury Wills, Harmon Killebrew and Roberto Clemente ... in a row.

Besides throwing between his legs or blindfolded, both of which he did with surgical accuracy, Feigner had another gambit: He usually steered clear of softball players. In fact he'd sooner face a Hall of Fame--bound baseball player than the local beer league boys. "There were other softball pitchers as good as Feigner," says Jerry Thomas, dean of the University of North Texas College of Education, who has studied expert athletes and played against Feigner in a game in 1958. "But he knew baseball players couldn't hit the softball. People assume it's easier to hit because it's bigger. But it comes from a different distance with a different motion. He would strike out professional baseball players from second base, but he usually avoided playing softball teams."

The reason baseball players can hit 100-mph fastballs but whiff at 70-mph softballs gets to the heart of what it takes to intercept a speeding projectile with a wooden stick. If hitting relied simply on human reaction speed, it would not be possible.

For the last three decades sports psychologists have been assembling a picture of how elite athletes hit 95-mph fastballs or return 150-mph tennis serves. The intuitive explanation is that the Ryan Howards and Rafael Nadals of the world simply have faster nervous systems—quicker reflexes, which give them more time to react to the ball. But it turns out that when elite hitters, from baseball and tennis to badminton to cricket, are hauled into the lab, their reaction speeds are no better than those of people chosen off the street.

In tests involving pressing a button in response to a flashing light, most subjects—athletes and nonathletes alike—take about 200 milliseconds, or a fifth of a second. (You can test yourself online at So, researchers conclude, a fifth of a second is about the bare minimum needed for the eye to take in information and convey it by electrical impulse to the brain, and for the brain to relay a message to the hands. "Once that pitch reaches the last 200 milliseconds," Thomas says, "you can't change your decision anymore. You're already swinging where you're swinging—and a lot can happen in the last 200 milliseconds of a pitch."

Two hundred milliseconds is almost half the entire flight time of a big league heater; the batter must start his swing before the ball is halfway to home plate. And given that the window for actually making solid contact with a fastball is about five milliseconds, or 1/200th of a second, it's a wonder that anyone ever hits it. In fact, the only way to accomplish it—the technique that separates the expert from the amateur—is to see the future.

Bruce Abernethy was an undergraduate at the University of Queensland in Australia and an avid cricket player in the late 1970s when he started wondering about the visual information employed by top batters. He began shooting cricket bowlers on Super 8 film and would then show test subjects the film but cut it off before the throw and have them try to predict where the ball was going. In the decades since, Abernethy, a professor in the School of Human Movement Studies at the University of Queensland, has become exceedingly sophisticated in his methods for so called "occlusion studies"—tests that block part of the thrower's or server's body, or that stop the motion before it's finished.

Abernethy has put special goggles on tennis players that black out their vision just before an opponent serves the ball. He has shown cricket batters video of bowlers with various parts of their bodies deleted, and he has had batters wear special contact lenses that blur their vision. The idea is to determine how expert athletes intercept projectiles and what information they need to do so.

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