See the ball, hit the ball

December 14, 2005

Athletes often say that when they are playing well - shooting hoops, hitting baseballs, catching passes - the ball appears bigger. Likewise, they say that when they are in a slump the ball appears smaller. When Mickey Mantle hit a 565-foot home run he said, "I just saw the ball as big as a grapefruit." But Joe "Ducky" Medwick of the St. Louis Cardinals said during a slump that he was "swinging at aspirins."

Appearances may be reality, in a sense.

A new study by University of Virginia psychologists has found a correlation between batting averages of softball players and how big, or small, they perceived the ball to be. The study documents that when the players were hitting well they clearly perceived the ball to be bigger. And when they were hitting less well, they perceived the ball to be smaller.

The interactions between mind and body - perception and action - may be as interlinked as athletes believe them to be, according to Jessica K. Witt, a cognitive psychology doctoral candidate at the University of Virginia. Witt and U.Va. psychology professor Dennis R. Proffitt describe the batting average and apparent ball size correlation in a paper that appears in the December 2005 issue of the journal Psychological Science.

The full article can be accessed online at: http://www.blackwell-synergy.com/doi/full/10.1111/j.1467-9280.2005.01640.x

"It's interesting that all the optical information is the same - the ball is only one size - but that it looks differently depending on the individual performance of the athlete," Witt said. She is interested in understanding if there is a feedback loop between perception and performance. "It's clear that the way we see the world affects the way we perform in it," she said. "I'm trying to get a glimpse into the role perception plays in streaks and slumps."

Witt and her colleagues conducted their experiment at several softball fields in Charlottesville, Va., and asked players who had finished playing for the day to look at eight different-sized circles on a board and pick the one that best represented the size of the softball they had been trying to hit. They also checked the hitting percentage of the players for that day. They found that the players who were hitting well were picking the larger circles, and the players who were batting .500 or above - those hitting safely at least half the time - were picking the largest-size circle.

The finding did not surprise Witt, a world-class athlete who competed last July for the gold medal-winning U.S. Ultimate Frisbee team at the 2005 World Games in Duisburg, Germany.

"As an athlete I've always been intrigued by how an athlete's physical performance can affect her state of mind," Witt said. "This study was designed to test what ball players have long been saying about how their performance is correlated with the way they are perceiving the ball."

Witt has experienced this herself as an athlete. She notes how she feels much more confident when she's throwing a Frisbee with the wind as opposed to against it. "The player I'm throwing to seems so far away when I'm throwing against the wind, but when I'm throwing with the wind it seems to be a short toss even if it's far," she said.

Witt plans to continue her study on perceived ball size and batting averages under controlled conditions. She hopes to obtain funding or regular access to a batting cage and competitive baseball players to design experiments that would allow her to closely monitor hitting performance, perception and the mental state of players. She is also interested in documenting whether or not visualization techniques - such as repeatedly imagining hitting a ball before going up to the plate - have any effect on performance in actuality and on whether the ball will look bigger.

Witt says such studies have implication in all areas of life - job performance, relationships, abilities and disabilities. "Perspective and perception play a big role in what we do and how well we do it," she said.
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University of Virginia

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