Do Top Athletes See The World Differently? Golfers enjoying a great day have long said the hole looks bigger than it is — even as big as a bucket. Now a new study suggests that successful athletes may actually perceive the world around them differently.

Do Top Athletes See The World Differently?

Do Top Athletes See The World Differently?

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Golfers enjoying a great day have long said the hole looks bigger than it is — even as big as a bucket. Now a new study suggests that successful athletes may actually perceive the world around them differently.


A great golfing guru once offered this advice, be the ball. But in fact, it is the hole, not the ball, that good golfers focus on. A new study shows that golfers who perform well tend to see the hole as really big, like the size of a bucket or a basketball hoop. And golfers who muff their putts report seeing the hole as small as a dime or the inside of a donut. Jessica Witt is an assistant professor of psychological sciences at Purdue. She coauthored the study. Hello, Jessica.

Dr. JESSICA K. WITT (Psychological Sciences, Purdue University): Hi. How are you?

PESCA: I'm well. How do you even begin to measure what people see the size of the hole as?

Dr. WITT: Well, we go out to the golf course, and after the players complete a round, we show them a poster board. And on the board there are circles of various sizes, and we ask them to select the circle that they think most closely matches the size of the hole.

PESCA: And so, they're not trying to exaggerate. They're really trying to name the size.

Dr. WITT: Right. We tell them to be as accurate as possible and that we're interested in the actual physical size of the hole.

PESCA: And the ones who picked the biggest holes, what'd you find out about them?

Dr. WITT: We found out the players who picked the largest holes were also the players that played better that day. They reported having lower scores, and in golf, lower scores are the better scores.

PESCA: Right. And is it - does it work the other way? The tiny-hole perceivers were terrible?

Dr. WITT: Yeah, so the players who didn't play as well that day selected the smaller circles as matching the size of the hole.

PESCA: Now, is it that, you know, these good golfers walk around in life seeing the hole as big, or is it just after the good round they shot, they come back and they say something like, wow, the hole seemed like the size of a saucer?

Dr. WITT: That's an excellent question. We obviously only were able to measure right after the round, so I'm not sure. But if I were speculating, I'd say it's going on throughout the entire round. And in fact, we collected data on their performance on the very last hole and also found a relationship between how many putts they made and how large they perceived the hole. So the players who made fewer putts just on the last hole selected larger circles.

PESCA: When a baseball player is really hitting well and he's on a hot streak, sometimes he'll use the phrase, the ball seems the size of a grapefruit or the size of a basketball. Same thing going on there?

Dr. WITT: Exact same thing. In fact, our earlier research was on softball players, showing a very similar phenomenon. Players who had a higher batting average that night perceived the ball as bigger.

PESCA: You know, I guess the question is, as long as you aim for the middle, it doesn't affect things, but when it comes to shooting and accuracy, isn't an accurate perception of the thing you're shooting at - wouldn't you think that might help you?

Dr. WITT: True. Yeah. An accurate perception is important, but I also think that perhaps seeing something, a target, as bigger might give you more confidence, might help your body to relax and just do the thing you know how to do. We really were measuring perception, not memory for the hole. Like, if people asked that as a question, we have a good answer, but if people just trust that we're measuring perception all along, which is what we think we're measuring, then it's - why bring up the issue?

PESCA: So, in other words, someone criticizing the study might say, oh, you didn't really test that what they were doing on the course. You just tested what they remembered doing.

Dr. WITT: Exactly.

PESCA: And you say to that, what?

Dr. WITT: In our experiments in the laboratory, we were able to get them to estimate the size of the hole while looking at the hole, and in that case, we still find the exact same effect ,where players who make more putts see the hole as bigger.

PESCA: See, I see you as maybe being an excellent assistant professor of psychological sciences, but a terrible caddy, if you're always asking those questions about a guy's putting. Do you have to pick your...

Dr. WITT: You know, maybe that's why I'm not a good golfer. Because when I'm out there golfing, I'm thinking, does the hole look bigger or smaller? What do I do?

PESCA: And they're saying four iron or five iron, and you're trying to ask them about diameter and radius.

Dr. WITT: Yeah. That is true. No, actually, they - they love participating. The NCAA Golf Championships - men's golf championships were here, so I went out and interviewed a few of them and they loved it. They were really into it.

PESCA: Do you know - is there any way that you cannot just retroactively see what they thought of, but kind of mentally use your findings as a mental exercise? Convince yourself that the hole is bigger and then you bet better?

Dr. WITT: That's what we're hoping. In fact, we're currently conducting some studies looking at exactly that, if people visualize the hole as bigger or using - in another experiment, we're using visual illusions to literally make them see the hole as bigger before they putt.

PESCA: Did you look at things where the athletic task is not - wouldn't be helped by seeing something as large? I'm thinking of a goalie in soccer or hockey. Do they see their net as small?

Dr. WITT: I certainly think, and I haven't done this study, though I hope to, that if you're trying to shoot a ball or a puck into a net and there is a very talented goalie in your way, that net's going to look a lot smaller.

PESCA: Right. So, that's from the perspective of the guy shooting. I mean, the perspective of the guy defending, or even like a sumo wrestler, a really good one, does he see his opponent as underfed?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. WITT: Perhaps.

PESCA: You play, what sport?

Dr. WITT: My main sport is Ultimate Frisbee. In 2005, I was actually on the U.S. National Ultimate Frisbee Team.

PESCA: Really?

Dr. WITT: And we competed at the World Games in Germany, where we won the gold medal.

PESCA: When you're - when you're doing well, do you see the Frisbee as really big?

Dr. WITT: I think so, actually. It certainly moves slower.

PESCA: That's right. That's the other thing that happens. Things seem to be moving in slow motion when you're on a hot streak.

Dr. WITT: Yeah. Yeah.

PESCA: Have you done any - have you or any of the other researchers done any studies on that? That things seem to slow down?

Dr. WITT: No, but we want to. Especially in tennis, a lot of people report that the ball seems to move slower when they're in the zone.

PESCA: How would you devise a study? Let's brainstorm this. How would you devise a study to test that?

Dr. WITT: It's a hard thing to measure time perception, which is why we've mostly stuck to size perception. One thing we're hoping to use is - Purdue has a great VR, virtual reality, facility, so try to recreate the motion of the ball and just ask people to adjust it so it looks like it was going the same speed as in the tennis match.

PESCA: And maybe you'll find out that, you know, the player who is playing well that day or who is, in general, good just perceives the ball and everything as going slow. Maybe a racecar driver would feel the same way?

Dr. WITT: Yeah, but you know, if you have any ideas of how to measure that, let me know.

PESCA: What, are you kidding? I'm going to apply for a government grant. I'm not going to go through you. Jessica Witt is an assistant professor of psychological science at Purdue University. Thank you, Jessica.

Dr. WITT: Thank you.

PESCA: Big show rolls on, a sports mystery is solved. Northwestern was, indeed, stealing signals from Michigan. It's not against the rules, but perhaps a little nefarious. We will bring the story to you, years in the telling. This is the Bryant Park Project from NPR News.

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