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Tennis Players Ace Perception of Speed, Motion

But outside their game, they see pretty much like everyone else, study finds

THURSDAY, June 19 (HealthDay News) -- Tennis players are often faster and more accurate at spotting moving tennis balls on the court, but not necessarily at spotting a cat running across the road while they are driving, according to a new study.

The findings, reported in a recent issue of PLoS ONE, show that tennis players ace the average person at certain time-related, visual perception skills, such as speed discrimination, but not by much in real life. Researchers at the Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne in Switzerland concluded that it could be because all people use some of these skills on a daily basis, such as when driving.

The researchers were unsure whether playing tennis improves one's temporal processing or that having better temporal processing allows people to become better tennis players. Regardless, the differences appeared to be small.

The researchers compared the performance of skilled tennis players to that of non-athletes and other athletes to see if any potential differences could be linked to tennis or other racket sports rather than to general athleticism. They had participants perform seven visual tests to access a broad range of perceptual functions, including motion and temporal processing, object detection and attention.

To compare speed discrimination ability, for example, the participants watched two displays of moving dots then pushed a button to note which set of dots moved faster. Tennis players triumphed here, especially when the dots expanded to appear they were moving toward them -- an expected result since tennis players often see balls heading at them at high speeds. Speed discrimination could, the researchers said, be a basic skill influenced by tennis playing.

Tennis players were also more accurate, but not faster, at being able to detect coherent motion within a field of randomly moving dots, again an expected result as their sport requires them to focus on ball trajectories. Nevertheless, as these tasks didn't involve a tennis-related context, they suggest these are general skills, not necessarily tennis-specific abilities.

The tennis players excelled most when their sport was introduced into the task, such as needing to spot the presence or absence of a tennis ball in a tennis-based scenario. However, when asked to spot the ball in a non-tennis-based picture, such as a landscape or other sports scenes, tennis players did no better than other participants did.

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-- Kevin McKeever

SOURCE: Public Library of Science, news release, June 10, 2008

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