Here’s a bit from the Economist’s sport blog that does a bit to explicate what is so impressive about top-level sports people, specifically cricketers:
When playing a cross-batted shot, such as a pull or a cut, the timing needed to connect with the ball seems impossible. According to a study in Nature Neuroscience, “the batsman must judge the vertical position of the ball to within 3cm (limited by the bat’s width) and its time of arrival to within 3 milliseconds (limited by the time the ball takes to pass the effective percussion zone of the bat).”
So what sets such batsmen apart? It is tempting to assume that they simply have better visual reaction times than the rest of us and can pick the ball up quicker. But according to “Wait”, a new book by Frank Partnoy, that is not the case. The book is about general decision-making in life, but contains a chapter on “super-fast sports”. It concludes that the best batsmen are no faster at “seeing” than their less successful colleagues, or even many amateurs.
Click through, cos it also has a video of Michael Holding bowling. So gloriously casual-looking in the run-up, but explosive in the release.
It turns out, of course, that what it’s all about is decision making. While the interval during which the batsman has to decide what he’s going to do is not actually long enough for him to process a thought consciously, somehow many batsmen are able to play for hours against fast bowling. If they can’t consciously decide what they’re going to do, they must be relying on some sort of pre-cognitive instinct, with the motions they need to execute for each possible shot being pre-programmed into the neural networks controlling the relevant muscles. This, then, somehow seems less impressive than making a split-second decision and then acting on it. But I guess the real challenge, then, is entering the mental state that allows the correct instincts to take over in the moment during which you play the ball. This requires enormous emotional control, including raw physical fear as well as the mental pressure of having to perform for your country; tuning out the heat, the crowd and whatever Ricky Ponting is chirping in your ear as well.
The article mentions that there are only a few sports that involve these split-second decisions. Football and games like it tend to give players a matter of seconds while in possession of the ball, or waiting for it to come to them; in golf, players can hit shots at whatever pace (within reason) they like. Baseball is like cricket, although the guy at bat will only face up to, what, 6 pitches maximum? Before moving on, whereas a cricketer might face hundreds of equally difficult deliveries in succession. Tennis players facing a fast serve have to react in a similar time to cricketers and baseball players, and like cricketers will continue to be put in that situation for hours on end. Roger Federer was kind of outraged last year when Novak Djokovic did this to him:
… basically because he didn’t think it should have been possible to take a swing like that and hit a clean winner of his first serve at match point. But who knows how Djokovic made that decision? Maybe he premeditated that he would go for a big shot off the serve, but he couldn’t have known where it would go. Maybe he guessed, based on where Federer had put his serves throughout the rest of the match. Or maybe he just gave control of his body to his subconscious mind, and that was the shot that it picked in the fraction of a second it took the ball to travel over the net, so what could he do?