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Sport and Competition

Want to Up Your Game? Visual Guidance Optimizes Motor Skills

Visually guided videos improve both gaze patterns and complex motor skills.

Source: Vladimir Arndt/Shutterstock

A variety of recent studies have used eye-tracking devices to monitor how our visual gaze and cognitive focus shift in tandem. For example, a study on children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) used eye-tracking devices to observe that when a conversation became emotional—and required more cognitive resources—that the gaze of the child diverted away from making eye contact with an adult.

Now, researchers from the UK have identified that optimizing someone's gaze is key to fine-tuning the mastery of complex motor skills during observation. Scientists at Brunel University London created a novel technique to identify how watching a video, which highlights crucial details of a golf swing—such as how golfers line up the ball, position their feet, and twist their hips—significantly reduces the time it takes to master this complex motor skill.

Across the board, the researchers observed that skilled performers exhibit more efficient gaze patterns than their less-skilled counterparts. Professional golfers tend to zoom in more frequently on task-relevant regions than rookies. Also, pro golfers aren't distracted by superfluous visual stimuli.

As a young tennis player, I learned the importance of keeping my eye on the ball and maintaining laser-focus using the vestibulo-ocular reflex (VOR). The VOR is key in most sports because it stabilizes images on the retinas during head movements by producing eye movements in the opposite direction of any type of head movement. i.e., When your head moves to the right, your eyes automatically move to the left to keep your focus locked onto a target, such as a tennis or golf ball. The VOR reflex reduces peripheral distractions by keeping a specific target in the center of your visual field.

Guiding Visual Attention to Task-Relevant Regions Optimizes Motor Learning

Courtesy of Giorgia D’Innocenzo et al.
Source: Courtesy of Giorgia D’Innocenzo et al.

For their recent study, the UK researchers created a unique way to guide novice golfers’ gaze towards relevant regions using superimposed blue dots on an instructional video. The team found that visual guidance dramatically improved the learning curve for mastering a golf swing.

By directing the learner’s visual attention to important task-relevant regions during the golf swing, the observational learning of motor skills improved significantly. This research shows that ineffective gaze behavior appears to inhibit the acquisition of relevant information during the observational learning of a motor skill.

The May 2016 study, “Looking to Learn: The Effects of Visual Guidance on Observational Learning of the Golf Swing,” was published in the journal PLOS ONE. In a statement, sport psychologist and co-author of the study, Dan Bishop, commented,

"If you want to watch videos to get better at your sport, it might pay to watch ones that have been edited to highlight key features. We found observational learning alone was better than watching another video without showing someone executing a swing. That was still useful for longer-term learning, but in terms of immediate skill pick up, our novices improved faster when we introduced visual guidance.

What we've done is not rocket science, but the principle that we can accelerate learning by observing in such a short space of time is exciting because there's a lot of applied potential that could transform the way we coach in the future. Coaches and athletes could save a lot of time, effort and money by using such techniques, so they can focus on higher-level aspects of their sport, such as decision-making. There may be similar implications in non-sport settings too, such as tertiary healthcare."

In this experiment, a motion-capture camera was used to track the novices' movements during 10 swings before and after watching one of the 2.5-minute videos. PGA qualified coaches rated their performance. A week later they returned to do another 10 swings. The group that improved immediately were those who saw the highlighted videos. These results suggest that visual guidance to cued areas during observational learning of complex motor skills has the ability to accelerate the acquisition of a motor skill.

Conclusions: Visually Guided Videos Can Improve Motor Skills Beyond Sports

In conclusion, the researchers were able to demonstrate that a brief intervention using visual attention guidance by tagging the task-relevant regions of a video accelerated the initial acquisition and proficiency of a beginner’s golf swing. These findings have relevance beyond the world of sports. This research could lead to the development of observational training programs aimed at teaching complex motor skills to people from all walks of life, especially those suffering from some type of disability.

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