Skip to main content

To hit or not be hit, that is the question


September 06, 2006

MESA, Ariz. - With the baseball season in the home stretch, batting coaches should keep this bit of advice in mind during the waning weeks...when under pressure, don't let the batters concentrate on the execution of their swing, but rather tell them to focus on anything else!

Sounds strange, but according to research conducted by Arizona State University Applied Psychology Associate Professor Robert Gray, when expert batters are required to pay attention to the movement of their bat or limbs, their performance suffers. The exact opposite holds true for novices.

He explains that this phenomenon has to do with the way in which complex motor actions like hitting a baseball are controlled. "Experts control their actions automatically using motor memory that has been built up through hours and hours of practice, " says Gray. "When experts try to consciously attend to the performance of these actions - in order to make sure they succeed in a critical situation - they interfere with the automatic processes." According to Gray this is one of the main causes of choking under pressure.

In his visual perception and motor control research both with baseball batters and drivers, he was able to study perception, attention and skill in a way that no other researcher has before. Gray developed, over several years, simulations of baseball and driving that create an environment that combines a controlled presentation of visual stimuli with measurement of the participant's movements, allowing for the analysis of how complex actions like hitting a baseball are performed.

In his baseball batting research, he looked at two conditions with expert and novice batters. The experiments compared focusing attention on the movement of the bat with focusing attention on the rotation of the ball.

He found that novice players perform much better when they are asked to focus all their attention on their swing (bat movement), but their batting performance suffers when they are tasked with paying attention to the rotation of the ball.

"The reason is that the novices need to focus their attention on each of the steps involved in hitting a baseball, for example, rotating the hips, lifting the lead foot, and have no extra resources to focus on other things in the environment like the experts," says Gray. "They don't have the benefit of motor memory like the experts do, so they have to focus their attention more on the execution of their action. Since the physical process of swinging is already ingrained in the expert's body, asking an expert player to concentrate on the physical aspect of swinging has a negative effect on his performance."

In similar research relating to visual perception and motor control, Gray is relating what he has learned with baseball batting to study the performance of drivers. "Some of the same principles that are used to create a collision with an approaching baseball are also used when avoiding a collision with an approaching vehicle like an oncoming car on the highway," says Gray.

In one study, Gray found that motorists often use unreliable visual-motor control strategies in deciding whether it is safe to pass another vehicle or make a left turn.

"When driving a car, we tend to rely heavily on visual cues to determine whether it is safe to make a left-hand turn or overtake another vehicle," says Gray. "Rather than using a more accurate time-based strategy, many motorists use their perception of distance of the other vehicle to make their decisions. So, for example, they assume it is safe to pass as long as the oncoming car is far away. A better strategy would be to consider how much time is necessary to complete the maneuver."

Gray is harnessing what he has learned from both studies and is putting it to good use. "I hope coaches can use some of this research to help provide feedback to develop a better batter," says Gray. "The driving research will be invaluable to automobile manufacturers because it may be the catalyst that gets them to add safety devices to help prevent accidents. It's also valuable data for implementing changes to driver's education classes."

Gray also has developed courses, titled the Human Factors of Sports and the Human Factors of Driving, for the Applied Psychology program at ASU's Polytechnic campus.

This fall, Gray plans to expand his baseball batting research by looking at how batters adjust to bat lengths and weights. On the driving side, he will look at in-car warning signals that can be used to alert the driver when they are making an unsafe maneuver.

Both studies were funded by a $400,000 grant from the National Science Foundation's CAREER (Faculty Early Career Development) award.

For more information on Gray's research, the courses or the Applied Psychology program, visit http://www.poly.asu.edu/saas/appliedpsych/.