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Sporting ability could be a matter of brain over brawn

A new research project aims to discover whether visual processing is key to success. Scientists are to examine whether the brain could hold the key to success in top-level sport.

A team from the universities of St Andrews, Liverpool John Moores and Bradford are to work with the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) and elite young cricketers to establish if the best sportsmen are those who use their brains most effectively.

Backed by a £521,000 Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) grant, researchers will study whether those who are good at catching a ball actually are using parts of their brain more effectively to interact with the ball. For example, in being able to assess how far and fast a ball is travelling.

It is hoped the research could inform the development of techniques to predict who will be good at sports and then to suggest training regimes which could improve visual brain function, and therefore enhance sporting ability.

Some sporting bodies already use vision training techniques, however, there is scant scientific evidence they work. A key aim of the study is to test the effectiveness of such techniques.

Professor Julie Harris from the School of Psychology and Neuroscience at the University of St Andrews will team up with sports scientist, Professor Simon Bennett, of Liverpool John Moores University and the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB), in a project led by Dr Brendan Barrett and Dr John Buckley at the University of Bradford.

The team will assess vision and visuo-motor skills in elite cricketers who are in ECB training programmes, as well as in non-cricketers, using tests designed specifically to measure visual brain function.

These tests will measure visual abilities in situations that mimic the sporting environment; for example, testing the ability to see and discriminate motion and depth, and testing the ability to anticipate the future location of a moving object.

Tests will include a specific cricket task (one-handed catching) and a more general hand-eye co-ordination task (pointing). State of the art infra-red motion-capture camera systems will allow limb and body movements to be carefully measured and monitored when players catch a ball.

Professor Harris said: “We have selected cricket because of the complexity of the visual demands required.
“Our results will generalise to other sports, particularly those featuring a fast-moving ball (e.g. tennis, handball).”

“Although the focus of the study will be on linking visual and motor abilities in high-performance sport, we believe the results will hold direct relevance to everyday scenarios where visual perceptual skills limit motor control.

“Thus the work will also address the more general aim of identifying the nature of the relationship between visual and motor capabilities to understanding how perception and action are linked in more everyday tasks.”

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