The athletic brain

The Sport & Exercise Psychology Lab at Florida State University takes an in-depth look at athletes’ cognitive processes

By Kirsten Weir

March 2019, Vol 50, No. 3

Print version: page 56


Weir, K. (2019, March). The athletic brain. Monitor on Psychology, 50(3).

Athletes get a lot of attention for their physical attributes: speed, strength, coordination, grace. But excelling in sports requires more than muscles and physical prowess. An experienced athlete takes in important visual cues, tunes out extraneous ones, spots patterns and makes plans—all in the blink of an eye.

In the milliseconds before basketball players take a free throw or baseball players aim a pitch, they fix their gazes on the net or the catcher’s mitt. They absorb key information such as the location and distance of their targets, the location of other players or the direction of the wind. Attention researchers use the term “quiet eye” to describe that moment of taking it all in before springing into action.

But when the eyes are quiet, the brain is anything but, explains Gershon Tenenbaum, PhD, who directs the Sport & Exercise Psychology Lab at Florida State University (FSU). In fact, quiet eye is strongly linked to performance. Tenenbaum and his colleagues used eye-tracking technology to follow the gazes of tennis players as they returned serves to their opponents. They found that highly skilled players had longer quiet eye periods than those who played at an intermediate level. And among skilled players, the longer the quiet eye period, the better the shot (Journal of Sport & Exercise Psychologyeuyswbybeuxfrfvtusdusffydvszys, Vol. 40, No. 2, 2018).

Those findings have proven true beyond tennis. The pattern holds across a range of sports, including golf, hockey, basketball and pistol shooting, as Tenenbaum and his colleagues reported in a review of more than two dozen studies of quiet eye (Journal of Sport & Exercise Psychology, Vol. 38, No. 5, 2016).

For a researcher like Tenenbaum who is interested in attention, perception, decision-making and other cognitive abilities, quiet eye is a fascinating puzzle to solve. What’s happening during that instant? Can people be trained to develop it? How long should it last to maximize the chance of a perfect shot?

“We know that when quiet eye becomes longer, you have a greater chance to perform well. But you can’t concentrate forever, and in fact concentrating too long can cause a deterioration in performance,” he explains. “So, what’s good? We’re trying to determine the optimal zone of the quiet eye for novice, intermediate and expert players.”

The quiet eye research is just one example of the varied projects in Tenenbaum’s lab. Much of the work has direct applications for improving athletic performance, while other studies aim to answer fundamental questions about the ways we process information. But all of Tenenbaum’s projects share some things in common: a scientifically rigorous approach to sport psychology, combined with a down-to-earth understanding of how athletes operate. “I bring to my research real questions from the field and ideas that I encountered myself as an athlete and a coach,” he says. “I always want to find answers to practical questions.”

High-tech tools

tic tac toe For Tenenbaum, athletics is more than a day job. It’s a way of life. Before he became a scientist, he played handball for the Israeli national team for 10 years and coached the sport as well. And while he was coaching and playing, he was earning an undergraduate degree in physical education and sport, then a master’s in education research and theory, both at the University of Tel Aviv in his native Israel.

The flexibility, focus and quick thinking that made him an expert handball player have served him well in science, too. After research positions in Israel and Australia, Tenenbaum came to Florida in 2000. His Sport & Exercise Psychology Lab started small but grew steadily to include some 10 doctoral students. “In the beginning, we had meetings at his house to discuss the research. By the time I graduated, there were too many of us to fit and we had to move to a meeting room at the university,” says former student Itay Basevitch, PhD, now a senior lecturer at Anglia Ruskin University in England, who finished his dissertation in 2013. “He had a vision for the lab, and during that time he also started growing the technology.”

In his first years at FSU, Tenenbaum used relatively simple equipment: some heart rate monitors, a few handgrips, a biofeedback system. Biofeedback technology measures body functions such as temperature, heart rate variability and skin conductance response (a measure of physiologic arousal). Those measurements are useful in sport psychology research as well as in the sport psychology consulting services that Tenenbaum provides to athletes and teams. With biofeedback training, athletes learn to regulate their physiological responses to improve focus, control stress and perform with greater consistency.

In the years that followed, Tenenbaum invested in high-tech equipment, including the eye-tracking technology, electroencephalography caps to measure electrical activity in the brain, and devices to measure reaction time, coordination and visual perception. He makes that equipment available for use by other researchers across the FSU campus, and his own team finds innovative ways to use the technology both in the lab and in real-world settings like tennis courts and soccer fields.

In one current project, for example, PhD student and former lab coordinator Nataniel Boiangin is using stroboscopic glasses—glasses that flash rapidly between opaque and transparent to limit the field of vision—to explore whether training can improve decision-making in tennis players. When an athlete decides when to pass a ball or where to aim a serve, the first step is to gather all the relevant environmental cues. One skill that sets expert athletes apart from novices is the ability to tune out irrelevant bits and pieces in the environment.

Research with eye trackers shows that novice and intermediate tennis players look at more visual fixation points when they’re waiting to return serves, Boiangin explains. Their eyes might dart from their opponents’ wrists to their rackets to a leaf blowing in the wind. Experts, on the other hand, are able to take in the big picture all at once, seeing patterns without registering every individual detail. “Experts aren’t actively looking at each little cue. They’re able to chunk that information,” says Boiangin, who is finishing his PhD and recently took a position as an instructor in sport and exercise sciences at Barry University in Florida. He theorizes that using the stroboscopic glasses to limit athletes’ fields of vision might force them to become more efficient at zeroing in on the cues that count. “Can we teach novice players to focus on the right visual cues?” he asks.

Despite their interest in technology, Tenenbaum and his students remain skeptical of trendy tech tools. Many high-tech training tools marketed to athletes promise to improve performance, but the evidence for such claims is often limited, Boiangin says. “The problem in our field right now is that the technology is moving more quickly than the research.”

In the last few years, for instance, marketers of virtual reality training systems have burst onto the scene, claiming to help athletes hone their skills. But do they work? Tenenbaum, former student Sicong Liu, PhD (now a postdoctoral researcher at Duke University) and colleagues explored whether 3-D technology could improve tennis players’ decision-making. The participants judged the direction of tennis serves in videos presented through 3-D glasses. Players wearing the glasses did make quicker decisions than those watching standard videos—but that revved-up reaction time didn’t result in greater accuracy (European Journal of Sport Science, Vol. 17, No. 5, 2017). “To be fair, 3-D technology is only one step toward interactive virtual reality,” Liu says, so it’s too soon to rule out the benefits of those fully immersive systems. “But for 3-D technology alone, we don’t see much promise for training athletic decision-making.”

Making exercise more fun

Not all of Tenenbaum’s work focuses on athletes. He’s also deeply interested in the “exercise” half of the “sport and exercise psychology” in the lab’s title. In one line of research, he and his students have investigated factors that make exercise feel like work—and how to make pounding the treadmill less of a slog.

Consider, for example, what happens during the first minutes of a run or a Zumba class you may be engaged in. You’re working at a low intensity, and you can enjoy the music, think about what to cook for dinner later, maybe even chat with the person next to you. But as effort and fatigue increase, you shift from dissociative attention, which allows you to disengage from the physical effort, to associative attention, when you just can’t ignore your burning lungs and aching muscles. “When it passes that point, you can no longer pay attention to other stimuli. You only pay attention to the pain and the exhaustion,” Tenenbaum says. “In several studies we tried to manipulate the situation to see if we can extend the point where they want to stop.”

Tenenbaum, Basevitch and colleagues asked participants to squeeze handgrips while blindfolded or not, and while listening to music or not. They found that those who both listened to music and were able to look around freely reported lower perceived exertion than those who had music but no visual stimuli, or visual stimuli but no music. The combination of the senses delayed the shift to associative attention, suggesting that when it comes to distractions, more are better (Psychology of Sport and Exercise, Vol. 10, No. 6, 2009).

Many people already listen to music or watch TV while exercising, of course. Could stimulating other senses extend the attention shift to help people enjoy exercising even longer? Tenenbaum’s team exposed exercisers to pleasant scents like lavender and peppermint (The Sport Psychologist, Vol. 25, No. 2, 2011) and to lemon-flavored mouthguards (Psychology of Sport and Exercise, Vol. 25, 2016) to test whether odors and flavors might serve as useful tools for making exercise more pleasant. Unfortunately, neither approach significantly extended the shift to associative attention, though participants in the scent study did report that the aroma of lavender diverted their attention more than did the smell of peppermint or nothing at all. Despite those insignificant findings, Tenenbaum is hopeful that other research may find ways to tap into the five senses to help people enjoy exercise more. “One reason people don’t adhere to exercise is because they don’t feel happy there,” he says. “We’re trying to help them increase their effort and at the same time, make exercise more pleasant.”

New challenges

description After years as a prominent figure in sport and exercise psychology, Tenenbaum has made lots of connections—and he’s generous about drawing on those connections to help his students succeed, Liu says. Whether it’s introducing students to faculty members with expertise in their areas of interest, networking with elite athletes and potential participants, or unearthing grants to help purchase new equipment, Liu says, “he’s very resourceful.”

Tenenbaum’s background in measurement and statistics is also a strong point for his students, both Liu and Basevitch note. “A lot of students in sport psychology programs are kind of scared of statistics,” Basevitch says. But Tenenbaum makes sure his students face the numbers head-on, with a dedicated course on measurement and statistics in sport in addition to the statistics classes required by the department.

“Knowing how to design the research and use the correct analyses is a big strength,”Basevitch adds.

After building his lab into a state-of-the-art location for sport and exercise psychology, Tenenbaum is proud of what he’s accomplished in Florida. Yet he’s decided it’s time for a new challenge. In 2019, he’ll relocate to Israel and launch a research lab at the Interdisciplinary Center, a private college in Herzliya, Israel. The FSU Sport & Exercise Psychology Lab will live on, with a new crop of researchers to learn still more about the science of sport. “I expect the lab will keep growing and be better and better,” he says.