Head Games: How Visual Illusions Improve Sports Performance

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It’s that time of year again. March Madness is around the corner and athletes — and inspired fans — are aiming to improve their performance on the court. It turns out, the secret to game-time success may lie in players’ imaginations.

A new study finds that athletes are more likely to score when they think their target — be it a basket or golf hole — is larger than it really is.

Researchers from Purdue University studied 36 college students putting into a golf hole up a ramp. Using a projector, the researchers created an optical illusion that showed a ring of circles around the golf hole which altered its perceived size. In the first trial, they projected a ring of 11 small circles that made the golf hole look larger in comparison. In the second trial, they projected five large circles that made the hole look smaller. Each student putted 10 times in each trial.

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The findings showed that the students were 10% more likely to sink their putts when they thought the golf hole looked larger. “That’s one stroke,” study author Dr. Jessica Witt, psychological scientist at Purdue University, said in a statement. “In a professional setting, that could make a huge difference.”

According to the researchers, an increase in the apparent size of the target may increase participants’ confidence in their abilities and improve their performance.

This isn’t the first time researchers have found that perception and performance are related. In a 2005 study, Witt discovered that softball players who were hitting better than others judged the ball as bigger. Similarly, in a 2010 study of tennis players, participants who were hitting better estimated balls to be moving slower and the midline net to be lower in height. Those who were playing poorly in both studies reported the opposite.

As George Scott, a first baseman for the Boston Red Sox, once said: “When you’re hitting the ball [well], it comes at you looking like a grapefruit. When you’re not, it looks like a blackeyed pea.”

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So what can March Madness players and fans take away from the latest study? According to the researchers, imagining that the hoop is larger could improve the performance of an athlete in a slump. Conversely, visual distractions could make it harder for players to scale the basket appropriately. So fans in the stands should bring their own A-game. Whether or not wild cheering and waving a big foam finger behind the net can guarantee your home team’s win, it’s worth a shot.

The new study was published online in the journal Psychological Science.