Friday, January 16, 2009

Catching a ball with your eyes closed

Anyone interested in improving their hand-eye coordination should read the story in today's Wall Street Journal about Cardinals WR Larry Fitzgerald.

Fitzgerald has more than 1,400 receiving yards this year, but he's "not an extraordinary athlete."

According to one researcher interviewed in the article:

"His catching talent has less to do with his hands and feet than his eyes and brain. The two catalysts for Mr. Fitzgerald's success may, in fact, be his stint as a teenage ballboy for the Minnesota Vikings and the summer days he spent at his grandfather's optometry clinic."

The researcher believes Fitzgerald has "mastery of two cognitive skills she has observed -- one called 'the quiet eye' [the ability to focus on an object for a long time even as you move] and another known as 'predictive control' [the brain's ability to gather information from the eyes and use that info to anticipate what will happen next]."

Fitzgerald strengthened his "quiet eye" abilities at his grandfather's eye clinic where, starting in the first grade, "he'd stand on balance beams and wobbly boards while doing complicated hand-eye drills. By the time his grandson was 12 and emerging as an athlete, [his grandfather] tailored many of these exercises to athletics."

To improve the boy's precision, control, spatial judgment and rhythm, for instance, [he] would hang a painted ball from the ceiling and have him try to hit the colored dots on the ball with the matching colored stripes on a rolling pin.

As for "predictive control," the researcher contends that the "best goalies and tennis players she's studied have two skills. First, they use the quiet-eye technique to take a clear snapshot of an approaching object and then, while it approaches them, will instantly compare it to a vast library of memories drawn from years of practice and observation."

By matching that object with others, they can make a perfect calculation of where it will go and how to put themselves in position to make the play -- even if they aren't looking at the ball.

Fitzgerald's excellent predictive control may be related to him working as a Vikings ballboy for six seasons as a kid.

As the article states, "This enabled the young Mr. Fitzgerald to see thousands of passes thrown and caught from the sidelines, to absorb these images up close in three dimensions and to study superstar receivers like Cris Carter and Randy Moss."

The experiences probably left Mr. Fitzgerald with a catalog of millions of impressions that would take most athletes years to build.