Indeed in many sports it looks as if the basic facts of timing leave them with no option. When you are batting in baseball or cricket, the ball comes at you at up to 100mph from 60 feet away. That’s less than half a second before it’s past you. Tennis, squash and table tennis all involve similar response times. There’s no time for thinking here. You can only react unconsciously.
The Australian sports psychologist David Mann has produced some striking corroboration for the unconscious nature of fast sporting skills. It is well known that the human visual brain takes in information via two distinct pathways—a fast dorsal (or ‘where’) stream, which is largely unconscious and guides immediate physical movements like reaching and grasping, and a slower ventral (or ‘what’) stream, which deals with the conscious classification of objects. Given the timing involved, fast-reaction skills like batting in cricket are likely to come under the control of the unconscious dorsal stream. But this leads to a surprising prediction. Since the fast dorsal stream has only limited visual acuity, bad eyesight shouldn’t make much difference to hitting a cricket ball.
Mann decided to test this.* He used contact lenses to reduce the visual acuity of expert batsmen from 20/20 vision to 20/60, 20/120 and 20/180. (20/20 is normal. 20/180 means that things 20ft away look as blurred to you as they do to most people at 180 ft.) Mann discovered that for bowling of up to 70 mph batting was hampered only by the highest degree of blurring. Even for bowling of 70-80 mph—fast medium by any standards—the 20/60 lenses did nothing to affect performance. Most countries won’t give you a driving license if you have 20/60 vision, but it won’t stop you hitting Glen McGrath as well as you ever did.
I’m not talking about dumb premeditation here. It’s not that these performers have committed themselves to any definite movement before they’ve seen the ball. Their shot selection will still depend on the approaching trajectory. But they will have consciously shifted their strategy, so that a ball that previously produced one response will now call forth a different one.
There is something almost paradoxical here. We’re talking about eye-blink-fast unconscious reactions, mediated by neural channels that must necessarily by-pass anything like conscious decision-making. Yet which shot is prompted in that flash of time is also somehow influenced by conscious strategy.
To understand how this might work, we need consider the structure of action control in human beings. It’s helpful to think of this as operating on two levels. First there are the behavioural systems we share with other animals, in which initially innate responses are shaped by experience of rewards and punishment. Recent psychological research with rats, monkeys, crows and other animals has shown that these systems can be remarkably sophisticated. However, they are also limited in various ways, and in particular they tend to be overly susceptible to distracting temptations. You can always deflect a monkey from its current task by offering it a banana.
We humans are able to do rather better, courtesy of a second control system which enables us to form long-term intentions and stick to them. We take time out, we deliberate about what to do, and then we commit ourselves to a certain plan of action. The advantages are obvious. Our choices can be informed by the wealth of information that our culture provides, not just by our personal experience. And we can make sure that we are acting in our long-term interests, and not just in pursuit of some passing temptation.
This hierarchical structure of action control explains the apparent paradox of conscious control of unconscious sporting reflexes. Top sports performers will have spent many hours training their animal-like responses to fast-approaching balls. However, they normally won’t learn just one stock set of responses. They will have learned how to return to the backhand as well as the forehand, how to bat defensively as well as attackingly, how to leave pitches outside the strike zone as well as swing at them, and so on. And then in competition they will deliberately decide which set of responses to employ, depending on the circumstances at hand. Their prior decision about which set of responses to engage will be conscious, but after that the execution of their chosen strategy can be left to unconscious reflexes.
This structure also explains why mental focus is so important in sport. It’s one thing to form an intention, another to carry it out. You might decide to stop at the greengrocers on the way home, but then start thinking about tomorrow’s lecture and forget to do so. Indeed there’s a whole area of contemporary psychology (“prospective memory”) devoted to the question of how earlier intentions control later actions. Nobody has any definite ideas about the precise mechanisms involved, but one obvious technique is to keep your intention firmly in mind and not allow your thoughts to wander.
In fact we later found out exactly what was going through Ramprakash’s mind. Apparently Shane Warne had been goading him for some overs. “Come on Ramps, you know you want to.” Warne was a great psychologist as well as a great spinner, and he knew his man. Once he had inserted the tempting vision of a lofted drive into Ramprakash's thoughts, the batsman's commitment to a steady test innings was soon undone.
Different sports vary in their mental demands. But they nearly all call for unnatural levels of sustained concentration. Batsmen at cricket need to hold their intentions in mind for hours on end. Boxers need to stick to their plan even while they are being battered by their opponents. And in general sporting competitors have to maintain a constant focus, knowing that any lapse can mean the difference between defeat and victory. This kind of mental steadfastness is not to be taken for granted. I would say that it’s their minds rather than their bodies that divide the great sporting figures from the rest of us.
* Mann, D., Abernethy, B. and Farrow, D. 2010 “The resilience of natural interceptive actions to refractive blur” Human Movement Science 29 386–400.