New insights:Visual-motor expertise in athletes

Visual-motor expertise in athletes: Insights from semiparametric modelling of 2317 athletes tested on the Nike SPARQ Sensory Station

Kyle Burrisa, Sicong Liub,c and Lawrence Appelbaum b,ca Department of Statistical Science, Duke University, Durham, NC, USA; b Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Science, Duke University School of Medicine, Durham, NC, USA; c Center for Cognitive Neuroscience, Duke University, Durham, NC, USA



Elite athletes not only run faster, hit harder, and jump higher, but also see and react better. However, the specific visual-motor skills that differentiate high-achieving athletes are still not well understood. In this paper we examine 2317 athletes (1871 male) tested on the Nike SPARQ Sensory Station, a digital test battery measuring visual, perceptual and motor skills relevant for sports performance. We develop a multivariate Gaussian transformation model to robustly estimate visual-motor differences by level, gender, and sport type. Results demonstrate that visual-motor performance is superior for athletes at higher levels, with males faster at near-far eye movements and females faster at eye-hand reaction times. Interestingly, athletes who play interceptive sports such as baseball and tennis exhibit better measures of visual clarity, contrast sensitivity and simple reaction time, while athletes from strategic sports like soccer and basketball have higher measures of spatial working memory. These findings provide quantitative evidence of domain-specific visual expertise in athletes.


Sports place incredible demands on the human visual systems. Hitting a baseball, returning a serve, or blocking a shot on goal all require an athlete to see and react with great efficiency and accuracy. Over the last several decades, scientists have attempted to understand how the eyes and the visual brain contribute to athletic expertise (Gregory, 1997; Yarrow, Brown, & Krakauer, 2009). As captured in two recent meta-analyses (Mann, Williams, Ward, & Janelle, 2007; Voss, Kramer, Basak, Parkash, & Roberts, 2010), higher-achieving athletes are better at detecting perceptual cues, efficiently moving their eyes, processing information quickly, and maintaining attention. Across this literature, elite athletes tend to outperform sub-elite athletes and non-athletes in both sports-specific tasks and component-skill tasks that tap into broad, fundamental visual (Hitzeman & Beckerman, 1993; Laby et al., 1996) and perceptual-cognitive mechanisms (Casanova, Oliveira, Williams, & Garganta, 2009; Starkes & Ericsson, 2003; Williams & Ericsson, 2005; Williams & Ford, 2008).


Of fundamental interest, both the main effects and interaction models consistently reveal that visualmotor abilities, especially those with strong visual-motor control demands, are greater at higher levels of athletic achievement. This gradation of expertise level is unique in the literature, given that past research predominantly involves comparing small numbers of athletes to non-athletes on divergent choices of tasks (see Mann et al., 2007; Voss et al., 2010).

As, such, future hypothesis-driven research may use the characteristics identified here to guide studies testing talent identification or training studies aimed at improving on-field performance.

In addition, the current results indicate that performance on the battery of tasks differs by sport type. The distinction between strategic and interceptive sports has been made in several meta-analytic reviews (Lebeau et al., 2016; Mann et al., 2007; Voss et al., 2010), reflecting a strong research interest in understanding how competition demands are reflected in athlete’s underlying abilities.

Our findings indicate that athletes playing interceptive sports exhibit better Visual Clarity, Contrast Sensitivity, Near-Far Quickness, and Reaction Times than those playing strategic sports. In contrast, athletes playing strategic sports tend to score higher on the Perception Span task. This suggests that different visual-motor abilities are engaged by the situational demands of each sport type. Specifically, for interceptive sports, the importance of interacting with a fast-moving object may demand an enhanced ability to see the object, distinguish it from its environment, and react to its movement (Davids, 2002).

In strategic sports such as soccer, athletes must simultaneously maintain an array of information about teammates, opponents, and the ball. As such, players with high ability in Perception Span can quickly code and preserve spatial information, obtaining a performance advantage in pattern recognition and recall (Abernethy, Burgess-Limerick, & Parks, 1994), decision-making (Starkes & Ericsson, 2003), and development of team mental model (Mohammed & Dumville, 2001).

The current findings indicate that female athletes are better, on average, at Perception Span and Eye-Hand Coordination than their male counterparts, holding constant the level of expertise and sport type.

Kyle Burris, Sicong Liu & Lawrence Appelbaum (2019) Visual-motor expertise in athletes: Insights from semiparametric modelling of 2317 athletes tested on the Nike SPARQ Sensory Station, Journal of Sports Sciences, DOI: 10.1080/02640414.2019.1698090

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