Thinking is the sign of a novice

Friday, April 23rd, 2021

In 1975, as part of her graduate work at the University of Waterloo, Janet Starkes invented the modern sports “occlusion” test, David Epstein explains (in The Sports Gene), and found that one volleyball players’s blink of light was another’s fully formed narrative. Bruce Abernathy expanded on this work while an undergraduate at the University of Queensland in the late 1970s:

Abernethy started out using Super 8mm film to capture video of cricket bowlers. He would show batters the video but cut it off before the throw and have them attempt to predict where the ball was headed. Unsurprisingly, expert players were better at predicting the path of the ball than novice players.


Top tennis players, Abernethy found, could discern from the minuscule pre-serve shifts of an opponent’s torso whether a shot was going to their forehand or backhand, whereas average players had to wait to see the motion of the racket, costing invaluable response time.

(In badminton, if Abernethy hides the racket and entire forearm, it transforms elite players back into near novices, an indication that information from the lower arm is critical in that sport.)

Abernathy found that novices were already looking in the right place; they just didn’t have the cognitive database the read what they were seeing:

“If they did,” Abernethy says, “it would be a hell of a lot easier to coach them to become an expert. You could just say, ‘Look at the arm. Or for a baseball batter the real advice wouldn’t be ‘keep your eye on the ball,’ it would be ‘watch the shoulder.’ But actually, if you tell them that, it makes good players worse.”

As an individual practices a skill, whether it be hitting, throwing, or learning to drive a car, the mental processes involved in executing the skill move from the higher conscious areas of the brain in the frontal lobe, back to more primitive areas that control automated processes, or skills that you can execute “without thinking.”


To return to Abernethy’s point, “thinking” about an action is the sign of a novice in sports, or a key to transforming an expert back into an amateur.

(University of Chicago psychologist Sian Beilock has shown that a golfer can overcome pressure-induced choking in putting — paralysis by analysis, she calls it — by singing to himself, and thus preoccupying the higher conscious areas of the brain.)

Psychologists who research expertise like to say, “It’s software, not hardware.”


  1. Jeff R. says:

    I wonder if it matters what you sing. Does humming James Brown’s “The Boss” work better than, say, some woe-is-me emo song?

  2. Kirk says:

    Amazing to watch so many supposedly “smart” people rediscover truths first laid down by our ancestors over the course of human history.

    What is this but a “scientific” observation and interpretation of something that any practicing Zen Buddhist could tell you? “Mind of no mind…”. Musashi wrote about this in his Book of Five Rings. Chinese and Indian spiritualist sorts built these facts into many of the things that they did, and it’s foundational to any advanced martial art. Even the Europeans figured these things out, even if their work wasn’t quite as elegant or spiritual…

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