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Why athletes need a 'quiet eye'

If anyone knows how to grab a victory from the jaws of defeat, it’s Serena Williams. Just consider her semi-final against Kim Clijsters at the 2003 Australian Open. At 5-2 down in the final set, she was within a hair’s breadth of losing her place in the tournament. But rather than slipping into despair, she saved two match points before winning the next five games. Somehow, each serve and each return landed just where she wanted them to – and she would ultimately go on to win the whole tournament.

要问 "绝境逢生"是什么滋味,小威(Serena Williams)绝对最清楚。2003年澳网半决赛上,她对阵小克(Kim Clijsters)。决胜盘她2-5落后,在生死一发之间,她并没有陷入绝望,而是接连挽救两个赛点,再连胜五局逆转小克。不知为何,她每一次的发球与回球都落在她想在的地方——最终,她在这届澳网夺冠并揽下大满贯。

A single such feat would be an exceptional occurrence in any career, but Williams has since made similarly breath-taking comebacks at the Australian Open in 2005, at Wimbledon in 2009, and at the China Open in 2014, managing to pull back even when her opponents are serving a match point. In each case, the extreme pressure, rather than causing her to crumble, only seemed to sharpen her concentration.


Psychologists and neuroscientists have now identified some of the common mental processes that mark out elite athletes such as Williams. And one of the most intriguing aspects appears to be a phenomenon known as the “quiet eye” – a kind of enhanced visual perception that allows the athlete to eliminate any distractions as they plan their next move. Intriguingly, quiet eye appears to be particularly important at times of stress, preventing the athlete from ‘choking’ at moments of high pressure. It may even lead to the mysterious ‘flow state’.

心理学与神经学家发现像小威这样的优秀运动员们有一些共通的心理机制。"静眼"则是其中最有意思的现象之一,它指的是一种增强的视觉感知,能让运动员在下一步动作前排除干扰。有趣的是,研究人员发现静眼在高度紧张的状态下显得尤为重要,它能防止运动员在面临巨大压力时表现失常(choking, 在心理学中被定义为"压力条件下,一种习惯的运动执行过程发生衰变的现象") ,甚至能帮助运动员们进入神秘的"心流"状态(flow, 心理学上的指的是"一种将个人精神力完全投注在某种活动上的感觉")。

It’s not just budding sportsmen and sportswomen who should take note. The same laser-sharp focus can help doctors maintain their focus as they perform keyhole surgery, and it is of increasing interest to the military.


“There is a small window of opportunity for the motor system to receive information from the eyes,” explains Sam Vine at the University of Exeter. “And experts have found a better way to optimise that window and to keep that window [open], which helps their movements to be really accurate and really precise.”

来自英国埃克塞特大学(University of Exeter)的瓦因教授(Sam Vine)解释说:"运动系统接受视觉信息时,有一个稍纵即逝的窗口期。而专家们找到一种好办法优化窗口期并使之持续时间更长,这利于他们做到动作精准无误。"

Unexplored territories


The concept of quiet eye originates with the personal experiences of a kinesiologist called Joan Vickers. As a student in sports science – and a keen athlete herself – Vickers always had been interested in how our athletic talents vary so much from day to day.

静眼的概念起源于人体运动学家维克斯(Joan Vickers)的个人经历。作为一名体育科学专业的学生,她本人也爱好运动——维克斯一直对人类运动天赋的起伏变化很感兴趣。

While playing on the university basketball team, for instance, she once scored an extraordinary 27 points within the first half of a match. Another time, she had a stunning winning streak while serving for the university volleyball team. But both miraculous performances were one-offs – each time, her magic touch disappeared the next day.


“It kept on running around my head – how could I have done that? Physically I didn’t change,” she says. On the other hand, why were the elite athletes she envied not only so good, but also so consistent?


Embarking on a PhD at the University of British Columbia, Vickers began to suspect the secret lay in the way that elite athletes see the world. She hooked a group of professional golfers up to a device that precisely monitored their eye movements as they putted their balls. She found an intriguing correlation: the better the player (as measured by their golfing handicap) the longer and steadier their gaze on the ball just before, and then during, their strike. Novices, by contrast, tended to shift their focus between different areas of the scene, with each fixation lasting for shorter periods of time.

当时在加拿大不列颠哥伦比亚大学(University of British Columbia)攻读博士学位的维克斯提出假设:秘密藏在优秀运动员对外界的视觉处理方式上。她给一群职业高尔夫球手配备了一种装置,在球员击球时它能精确监控他们的眼球运动。她发现一个有趣的关联:水平越高的球员(以他们的让杆数来衡量),在击球前和击球时,对球的注视时间会越长且越沉稳。相比之下,新手的注意力往往会转移到场内的其他区域,每次盯着球看的时间也更短。

To see this process in action, watch the following video (courtesy of the University of Exeter’s Sam Vine). You will see how the golfer’s gaze is jumpy to start with, before fixating on one side of the ball as they take their putt.


The general idea that you should ‘keep your eye on the ball’ is well-known, of course – but this suggested something more intricate, with the precise onset and duration of the gaze correlating with an objective measure of sporting success.

当然众所周知,俚语中就有"盯着球看"(keep your eye on the ball,有"全神贯注"之意)一说,但它背后蕴含的东西更为复杂,衡量运动是否成功的客观指标与静眼凝视的精准起始时间及持续时间存在一定的相关性。

    蛐蛐英语 www.qqenglish.com

The finding was also at odds with the equally prevalent assumption that expertise comes from more rapid mental processing. According Vickers’ results, the expert athlete actually slowed down their thinking at the crucial moment.


“I knew I was seeing something that no one had ever seen before,” says Vickers, now a professor at the University of Calgary. “I felt like Columbus or the Vikings.”

目前在加拿大卡尔加里(University of Calgary)担任教授的维克斯说:"我想我发现了前人未发现的东西,那感觉就像哥伦布或维京人发现了新大陆。"

The quiet eye has since been observed in many other sports, including basketball, volleyball, football, tennis, archery, and ice hockey. Needless to say, the exact location of the gaze depends on the task in question. During a free throw in basketball, for instance, the gaze needs to land on the front of the hoop’s rim; for a football penalty kick, it should be on the top left or right corner of the net; and for an ice hockey goalkeeper, their gaze lingers on the puck just before their opponent released it from the stick. In each case, a steadier final fixation, just before the critical moment, marks out the expert athlete, who hold their gaze for 62% longer than novices.


Crucially, the differences in this dwell time of the quiet eye don’t just predict the overall differences between elite and novice players; fluctuations in the onset and duration of the quiet eye can also explain lapses in the athlete’s individual performance, which would again reaffirm the idea that it is itself a critical part of the mental processes.


Camilo Sáenz-Moncaleano, who recently examined the quiet eye in tennis players, suspects that most athletes had not made a conscious decision to change their eye movements; for many it’s probably a behaviour that they picked up implicitly. “They won’t know the name of the term, but they know how to do it,” he says. “It’s a natural thing.”

研究人员蒙卡莱亚诺(Camilo Sáenz-Moncaleano)近期对网球运动员的静眼现象进行了调查,他猜测绝大部分运动员改变自己眼球运动并非有意识的决定;对许多运动员来说,这也许是一种隐性的行为选择。他说:"运动员并不知道静眼这一术语,但他们知道怎么做。这对他们来说很自然。"

Budding athletes will be heartened to hear that the quiet eye can be taught, however. In one of the first tests of quiet eye training, Vickers took a university basketball team and hooked them up to her eye-tracking devices so that they could become more aware of their gaze as they practiced ‘free throws’.


As she had hoped, their performance improved – by 22% – over the next two seasons, compared to an 8% improvement in a control group. By the end of the second season, the team had reached a level of accuracy that was even higher than the NBA average.


Psychology is, of course, replete with apparently promising interventions that have subsequently failed to replicate. But this was not just a one-off result: quiet eye training has since helped many other amateur and professional athletes – including national volleyball teams and Olympic skeet shooters – to achieve their potential.


A recent meta-analysis confirms that the quiet eye is a strong and highly consistent effect. In 2017, the European Journal of Sport Science devoted a whole issue to exploring the phenomenon.

最近的一项元分析研究也证实,静眼的效果强有力且高度一致。2017年,《欧洲体育科学杂志》(European Journal of Sport Science)用了整整一期来探讨静眼现象。

Surgical precision


Given these striking results, the scientists have now started considering applications beyond elite sports. A University of Exeter study, for instance, has found that quiet eye training can help children with coordination problems improve their physical abilities, contradicting a commonly held belief that they instead suffered from some problem with the motor system itself. The team are also conducting some (currently classified) research with the military. 纽约时报中英文网 http://www.qqenglish.com


Vickers welcomes these attempts to elaborate on her initial research. “I feel really proud of that group in Exeter – they’ve really taken the ball and run with it,” she says.


Her research has shown that quiet eye training also could accelerate doctors’ learning of new skills. Her group recently measured the gazes of expert surgeons and then trained a group of first-year residents to mimic their eye movements – including the longer fixations that are characteristic of the quiet eye. Based on the assessment of independent surgeons, the measure appeared to have accelerated the doctor’s learning and improved their overall accuracy, compared to a control group given a more traditional technical training.


Given that the differences in quiet eye can last a fraction of a second, the current training relies on the feedback from expensive gaze-tracking equipment, meaning that the benefits are currently out of most people’s reach. Sáenz-Moncaleano, however, points out the technology is developing rapidly. It’s possible that future progress in consumer technology might open up quiet eye training for everyone. “The merge of VR and eye tracking could be a game changer,” he says.


In the meantime, many of the scientists are aiming to build their theoretical understanding of the phenomenon, which remains somewhat hazy. This is partly due to the practical difficulties of looking deeper inside the athlete’s brain as they practice their sport; we don’t yet have accurate fMRI scanners portable enough to take to training sessions, for instance, that might help pinpoint neurological mechanisms.


Even so, the scientists broadly agree that it revolves around advanced intelligence gathering. As Sáenz-Moncaleano puts it, the quiet eye allows you to “soak in all the information from the object in question” which “helps you to produce the best motor response”.


And the very latest research would suggest that this period of focus is especially crucial in high-stakes situations, preventing the athlete from ‘choking’.


To induce anxiety in a group of basketball players practicing free throws, for instance, Vine told participants that their results would be actively compared to others and could be presented to other students. Adding to the stress, the team later offered some false feedback during the test, telling the participants that their last 40 shots were so bad they had landed them in the bottom 30% and that if they did not improve, they would have to be excluded from the study.


Most participants’ accuracy dropped sharply after the poor feedback. But this was not true for the people who had previously undergone quiet eye training: they managed to set the negative thoughts to one side and maintain a high level of performance.


Even more intriguingly, the Exeter researchers have found that the quiet eye duration correlates with self-reported feelings of ‘flow’ or ‘being in the zone’ – the sensation of effortless concentration, in which your mind is clear of everything except the task at hand. The quiet eye also seems to coincide to other physiological changes throughout the body. The heart rate temporarily decelerates, for instance, and the movement of the limbs themselves become smoother. All of this might seem to support the idea that the quiet eye filters distraction and calms the mind and the body at the critical moment, even under stress.


Vine cautions that we should be wary of assigning too much importance to the quiet eye; many other factors will contribute to sporting genius. But it would certainly seem to be a key component of the extreme focus that athletes such as Williams often describe. And these psychological factors are worth emphasising – particularly given that many commentators still focus on physical strength without acknowledging the incredible mental resilience of athletes such as Williams.


Williams herself is under no illusions about what is most important.


“I’ve won most of my matches – probably all of my grand slams – because of what’s upstairs, not anything else,” she told Sports Illustrated in 2015. A large part of that may be the kind of calm focus that comes from the quiet eye.

2015年接受《体育画报》(Sports Illustrated)的采访时,小威表示:"我之所以能赢得了大部分比赛——我参加过的几乎所有大满贯赛事——都是因为脑力作用,没什么别的原因。"而她强大冷静的专注力很大一部分正是来自于静眼。

“If you are behind in a game, it’s so important to relax, and that’s what I do – when I’m behind in a game, that’s when I become most relaxed,” she added. “Just focus on one point at a time… just that sole point, and then the next one, and the next one.”




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