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Err, yes?

If you have wondered why your partner always beats you at tennis or one child always crushes the other at Fortnite, it seems there is more to it than pure physical ability.

Some people are effectively able to see more “images per second” than others, research suggests, meaning they’re innately better at spotting or tracking fast-moving objects such as tennis balls.

Thought that was obvious? In my very few childish attempts at cricket I simply couldn;t see the ball. At lesat, not in the same sense as – obviously – some others could.

I also recall a test batsman being asked how he was so good at dealing with spin – “Well, you can see the spin as it leaves the bowlers’ hand!” Something entirely obvious to him and not to mere mortals.

Yes, yes, people talk about reaction times but that’s not wholly it. Being able to see what will happen earlier is a part of it at least.

As so often, science tells us something we already knew, merely formalises it.

40 thoughts on “Err, yes?”

  1. Theophrastus (2066)

    Yes, obvious. See, for example, incredibly detailed Leonardo’s drawings of birds in flight

  2. This is why top level sportspeople are such poor coaches; they simply cannot comprehend why lower level participants cannot do & see what they do.

    I have proof of this in the number of golf/cricket/tennis coaches I have reduced to babbling wrecks over the years.

  3. I wonder if if it has to do with what part of your brain is doing the information processing. I know with some things, I can react without being aware I’m reacting. The awareness follows some time after the reaction. Happened recently. Person I was with accidentally knocked a glass over & off of the table. I wasn’t even looking at it. It was in my peripheral vision. I caught it about 2 inches below the level of the table top. The first time I was consciously aware of the glass, it was in my hand. My awareness of what had happened was a playback from memory.
    Maybe you train yourself to do that. In the batsman’s case, he’s not aware of the the ball spinning from the hand consciously. The process of playing to the spin is at an automatic level due to repetitive training. He rationalises after the event.
    With the flashing light experiment. I know from analogous situations, I’d be aware of the flashing by not concentrating on the light. If I looked at the light directly, the flashing would disappear. Faulty neon tubes for instance.

  4. Bloke in Aberdeen

    I remember an econtalk episode which covered some of this. Professional baseball batters (?) have average reaction times, but excellent eyesight.

    But it’s more than just the vision. There’s the knowing what to look for. I’d imagine any cricketers who can “see” the spin of the ball are actually reading the shape of the bowler’s hand and many other clues.

  5. It is the same with all activities. Some innate ability leads with practice to expertise. Musicians for instance, where much of what they do is called ‘ muscle memory’ in oither words they no longer need to ‘think’ what note is coming next.

    Devon Malcolm the fast bowler was renowned for his terrible eyesight and I think that bowlers do not need this facility. They need to know where the wicket and keeper are and chuck the ball in that direction.
    Derek Randall ( and Allan Lamb come to think of it ) were both excellent batsmen and fielders and that is to do with BiS’s hand eyey coordination experiences as well as excellent eyesight itself.

  6. Philip Scott Thomas

    I saw an article about this a few years back. It seems that Formula One drivers are able to process track details and conditions must faster than mere mortals.

  7. The difference between a thinking and thinking about it. I’ve never been good at any physical reaction thing like catching balls (nor wine glasses, though that would be useful). But there are some prole solving tasks where I know the solution, but then have the laborious and slow task of putting it into words just to prove to myself it is the right answer.

  8. @Ottokring
    I don’t think my eye hand coordination is better than anyone else’s. And my eyesight’s not that good. Recalling what happened, the glass knocker was doing the the usual energetic latina hand waving they do in any conversation & I would think the time span between the glass going over & me catching it was a tenth of a second. That’s far too fast for concious thought. Acceleration at 1G is 10m/sec/sec. Can anyone the math for the first 5cm? Too early in the morning for me.
    I do know I can do a lot of stuff without consciously thinking about it. Better without consciously thinking about it. There’s some things I can’t do if I consciously think about them.

  9. Another of those “I thought it was just me” things. To me it felt as though I couldn’t change the focus of my eyes fast enough to keep up with the bowled ball to aim the bat at it – in my case in rounders. To back that up, when driving it takes a noticable amount of time to change my focus from the road to the dashboard, so I have learned to read the instruments in my peripheral vision as “pointing towards the direction where 70 is on the dial”.

  10. Bloke in North Dorset

    In my late 30s I was asked to turn out for the 1st X1 in the Oxfordshire leagues, D2 IIRC. The opposition had a young Aussie fast bowler who was tipped for higher things over for our summer.

    The only way I knew the first ball was past me was when I heard it hit the keeper’s gloves, and he seemed to be stood on the boundary. The bowler aimed the 2nd ball at the edge of my bat and I got 4 runs. All I knew about the third ball was that I turned round to see my off stump cartwheeling towards the boundary.

    That was the end of my first team cricket.

    Anyway, the point of that anecdote was that as well as being able to see the ball apparently the real skill of batsmen who play fast bowling well is to be able to predict where the ball will pitch as its leaving the bowlers hand and almost immediately moved toward where the ball would pitch, or backwards if it was short.

  11. The only time I literally didn’t see a fast bowler’s delivery was playing against an Aussie team on an Aussie wicket. I played the “line of his arm” to little effect.

    I’ve always had very quick reflexes (I disarmed a mugger once when he tried to stick his knife into my heart) but my eyesight started to decline around age 18.

  12. Recognised for years – know as ‘hand eye coordination’. Some have it to a higher degree than others.

    Next week researchers will discover the wheel.

  13. @BIS

    ‘What colour is the boathouse in Hereford?’ is a line from Ronin, asked by Robert DeNiro’s character of Sean Bean’s character Spence and (the viewer imagines) designed expose Spence as a SAS walt (which he is).

    Re reactions etc, three things separate very good cricketers (batsmen) from the good.

    You do need good reactions, of course.

    Then it’s eyes.

    I was a very good batsman as a young bloke – opened for and captained the school, averaged 175 one season (by dint of carrying my bat a few times), had county trials, scored hatfuls of runs – but I was completely let down at the wannabe pro level by my eyesight.

    Viv Richards could apparently read the headlines on newspapers being read in the crowd (admittedly that does sound a bit apocryphal).

    I wasn’t that good (clearly) but I could definitely see the seam position (good bats are not post rationalising, they really are watching it, obviously better than I was able to), but it was seeing the ball after it pitched I struggled with, and that’s what separates the men from the boys.

    When I came up against really good bowling I kept nicking off and not really understanding how – I was technically very organised, my reactions were very good (still never lost a game of knuckles or slaps 🙂 ) and yet… caught at third slip for 12 again FFS.

    I couldn’t understand how or why, and spent a lot of time trying to adjust my guard, working on my footwork, trying lighter bats, heavier bats (the only thing that made a bit of difference was opening my stance, but that also closed off some shots so was no good), but in later life my optician mate (using newer technology) discovered I had/have a very slight astigmatism.

    Not enough to even notice in real life, hence I hadn’t noticed it, nor to be an issue against 75mph up and down club bowling, but disastrous against 82mph+ bowlers who could move it off a length. I was seeing the ball in two very slightly different positions an inch apart, basically, and guessing which one I was supposed to hit.

    These days I’d wear specs for batting – they can build them to correct this, though I don’t think I’d want to have been a county crickter even if I had been good enough (which I almost certainly wasn’t).

    Then it’s mentality. Lots of people have the natural ability, very few have the mental or physical stamina to bat for really long periods. Try an hour-long indoor net with a bowling machine, 200 balls, you’re soaked in sweat and mentally shot, and you haven’t even taken a run.

    Admittedly, they’re coming thicker and faster at you (in terms of the time between deliveries, and no resting on your bat at the non-striker’s), but it’s indicative. That’s what retires batsmen – eyes and reactions are still fine, they just can’t hack it any more.

    Anyway, I went and played rugby instead where it was less of an issue, and I had more fun.

  14. I know dogs have a faster frame rate than humans. With the CRT TVs they saw the flicker – and didn’t bark, react, at stuff on the screen because it didn’t seem realistic to them whereas with more modern high frame rate OLEDS they do to which many viral dog vids attest.

  15. HB – they’re barking because they’re wondering where all those black people on the telly came from.

    Africa, I would imagine.

  16. The frame rate for film and TV- 24 or 25fps- is designed to handle human vision.

    Flies see at about 300fps.

    The UV neon tubes in electric fly zappers, with a flicker in line with the 50Hz mains current, look to us like they’re static, but flies see them strobing.

    The flies are attracted by the UV, but repelled by the strobing, so these things aren’t as effective as they could be.

    My neon tubes have just failed, so I’m going to replace them with LED tubes, and I’m told that shoud lead to better fly zapping.

  17. HB

    Thats right. Cats could see CRT tellies, but dogs not. I also think a cat has colour vision whereas dogs do not.
    My bro in law’s late dog used to sit with him and watch the horse racing although he was a bit intimidated when they got the 65incher.

  18. A black man goes into a pub with a parrot on his shoulder.

    The barman says: “Where d’you get that?”

    The parrot says: “From Africa. There’s f*****g millions of ’em there.”

  19. Theophrastus (2066)


    “they’re barking because they’re wondering where all those black people on the telly came from.”

    My daughter’s pedigree labrador always growls at blacks. A black professional man once approached him and was lucky to escape without injury. I think Rufus should be head of Border Force. Though, more probably, ‘racist’ dogs like him will be put down under the approaching Starmer tyranny.

  20. I had a dog couldn’t stand blacks. Left him in the van one day with the window open. One put his head in looking for something to steal. Bet that’s something he never did again! Curiously, he was completely black dog. Not a pale hair on him until he was 12. Orange eyes. Answered to the name of Dæmon.

    It’s actually possible to see more fine detail on something by focusing very slightly off the subject. I suspect it’s because the receptor cells at the eye’s point of focus get more abuse, especially as you get older. And one’s field of vision is not what one thinks it is. The eye’s not like a camera with the entire scene in focus. What one sees in focus is about equivalent to a 50p at arm’s length. So one’s world picture is a mixture of scanning & interpolation & a great deal of visual processing. For instance, one detects moving objects far better than one does stationary.
    Which comes back to the conscious/unconscious thing again. Consciously you’re interpreting from the processed visual data. That process takes time. But you can do your interpretation from the unprocessed data which comes in a lot quicker. But it’s not necessarily something you’re going to be aware of doing. You just get the results.

  21. @BIS

    At the best level of cricket I have played at, and with the absolute best bowlers at that level, you get about 0.45sec to decide what shot to play and to execute it.

    (Test batsmen get about 0.3sec.)

    Obviously you can’t do a great deal of conscious analysis in that time and much of it is muscle memory (which is probably why netting is important), but I promise you that you are consciously looking at the seam and seeing which way it is leaning in the bowler’s hand before delivery, and especially as he presents it to you before entering the absolute moment of delivery.

    This is why bowlers go to great lengths to hide the seam with their non delivering hand as they run up.

    It’s also why ‘reverse swing’ is so destructive – because the ball behaves oppositely to the way it ‘should’.

    When the ball is reversing, which was a pretty new thing when I was playing seriously in the late 80s, you see the seam, and you start to get in position to play an away swinger, and then it comes back in at you (also late, usually, which makes it harder still).

    But yes, it’s far more than just what you see of the ball with your eye; I’ve read research (having been very interested in this topic) which apparently proves that tiny, almost invisible cues in a given bowler’s run-up and method of delivery play a major part in a batsman’s decision, and while I believe this to be true for the life of me I have never consciously bothered to watch the run up and rarely saw much in the delivery stride or delivery to aid me (except for slower balls).

    I played against a very good slow bowler who would deliver a very quick ball once every two or three overs – from 60mph to close to 80mph – which got a lot of people out and also saved him runs because blokes were wary of it. There was very little I could identify about the change, except that his arm moved a lot quicker once it started, but somehow I always knew it was coming long before that.

  22. I grew up in the Middle East. All the dogs we and our friends had absolutely hated – snarlingly so – Arabs, Pakistanis, Baluchis and so on, though to be fair it was mostly reciprocal.

  23. Alas the collie we used to have was similar. Lovely sweet natured thing but couldn’t stand black people. Which in Tooting was very probematic.

  24. I too have a slight astigmatism in my right eye which accounts for my total inability at ball games and lousy shooting and it nearly scuppered my flying career (as a navigator) before it started. In fact, it was a long time, as a right-hander, before I realised my left eye was my master eye.

  25. I’ve often wondered whether people with sharp reflexes or excel at sports, do not see the world in ‘real time’.

    It is certainly unconscious and also a bit like being colour blind, one knows nothing else. But does this ability mean that the world moves in a kind of slow motion ?

    But also there might be a kind of freeze frame function funtion. Trevor Brooking used to describe having a ‘picture of the pitch’ in his head when he passed the ball, almost as if he was looking at the game from above. I heard another more modern player say that too, forget who now.

  26. Stirling Moss used to say things on the lines of “That’s George driving that BMW,’ to interlocutors who could barely see the car, let alone who was driving it.

  27. bloke in spain: I’ve done the math, and it’s 0.32 seconds. I know from experience that I can’t start and stop a stopwatch in under 0.4 seconds. So I suspect you may have reacted to the hand gesture that you could see was going to knock the glass.

    “Hereford” is a metonym for the SAS, that being where they’re based.

  28. Australians did a study years ago with tennis serves tracking movement, eye position and the difference in reaction times with amateurs and professionals. Turned out the pro’s move earlier to anticipate the serve so there’s definitely an element of reading body position and detail as well as reaction time.
    There was an ice hockey net minder asked about facing 100mph+ shots from a player and said you have to be in the right place before they shoot, you can’t physically adjust your position that much once the shot is released.

    As for time sense my son played goalie in various sports and said on a good day everything does seem to slow down or the ball/puck seems bigger

  29. I suspect dogs don’t like them because they don’t like dogs. And dogs will read that from body posture almost instantly. Most Africans don’t. But I had a girlfriend out of Sierra Leone at one point. The sort of black, in a poor light all you see were the eyes & the teeth. I had to tell her jokes to find her. But she was brought up in London & liked them. With the two of them it was love at first sight. Couldn’t get enough of each other.

  30. Reminds me. She had a part in a TV show playing a W. Indian. So they used white her up in make-up to get the skin tone right. Not sure how that would go down now…

  31. Tim, I think the batsman you quoted was Wally Hammond.

    And Bradman’s reflexes were tested and found to be average but eyesight 20/20 which just backs up everyone’s opinion here.

  32. @CJ Nerd – “I can’t start and stop a stopwatch in under 0.4 seconds”

    I’m not sure if I correctly understand you, but that seemed very slow to me so I have just tried it on an Android phone and can do 0.12 easily. In fact, I have found a bug whereby if you start and stop under 0.1 seconds, it shows the fraction incorrectly – e.g. 0.095 shows as 95 instead of 09. You can tell the 95 is not real (quite apart from being able to tell 0.1 second from 0.95 seconds) by starting and stopping again and it goes from 00:00:95 to 00:00:25 or suchlike.

  33. @Charles
    I have just tried it on an Android phone and can do 0.12 easily.

    Now try it with a conventional mechanical stopwatch. There is a big difference in the physical effort needed.

  34. Movies were at 24/25/29 frames per second because that was the slowest they could make them without too many people complaining of flicker. The higher the frame rate, the longer the physical film has to be for a hour-long film or whatever (they started out much shorter than that).
    TV was the same – what’s the smallest number of pixels you can transmit to get something “good enough”.

    It’s not like you can’t notice it. Take a flat screen TV and go into the settings. There will be a “cinematic” or “movie” mode. One of the things that does is change the refresh rate to match that of a movie, so when you’re watching one it looks more like it should. If you don’t do that, it looks “cheap”, like it was filmed on someone’s home camera.

    We’ve been trained by a century of movies at those frame rates to accept what it looks like. Dogs and cats have not been.

  35. Dogs and cats have not been.

    Well it’s time they were !

    I’m going to make my cat watch Citizen Kane and then write an essay on it.

  36. Many years ago when I was working as a builder, I had two colleagues who used to throw each other Stanley knives (not retracted) from one side of the building to the other. They didn’t particularly try to avoid spin either. The other one just saw the spin and adjusted their catching accordingly.

  37. @ bloke in spain, April 2, 2024 at 7:24 am
    The process of playing to the spin is at an automatic level due to repetitive training. He rationalises after the event

    Yes, but not so much the training. It’s inate in some – like your catch. I’m similar in that I “see” things, differences I’ve not looked at. Good when a fast biker

    Talking of vision, when I go above ~170mph my field of vision inc peripheral reduces, faster still and it gradually goes black & white. I guess brain trying to priotitise what is most important

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