How often during a match when an attacker hits an off-speed shot that drops to the floor in front of a stunned defender does the coach mutter, “how did she not see that?”  I find myself groaning those words (with various expletives attached) on a daily basis. Perhaps, I might need to re-think what I am expecting from the players when the ball is in play.

Nick Chater

In a recent Wall Stree Journal article WSJ Link, author Nick Chater explored what you think you see is not what the brain processes.  In the perfect world, coaches want our players to absorb a multitude of visual keys as a play develops. We want blockers to see all the attackers, see an attack develop, watch the setter deliver the ball, see various aspects of the hitter approach and read the direction of the attack. If everything falls into place, we block the attack to the floor.

According to Chater, numerous studies have determined the eyes do not focus on multiple keys. The eyes focus on one thing at a time.

“In cluttered scenes, the ability to perceive any individual item is severely impaired by the presence of those nearby, as summarized in a study published last year in Psychological Review. The effect is known as visual crowding. Our brains can perceive just one object at a time, whether furniture, faces or fish.”

To test this concept, an illusion devised by French researcher Jacques Ninio demonstrates the phenomenon with a grid of dots. All the dots are technically visible all the time, but if they are crisscrossed by a matrix of straight lines, each dot appears to pop up individually only when we focus on it.

Taking this concept to a different level, Chater talks about the ability to multi-task.

“When I am listening to a conversation and writing on my smartphone, I have the illusion of multitasking, but I am just hopping rapidly from one task to the next.  At University College London, neuroscientist Geraint Rees and colleagues put people in a brain scanner and presented them with overlapping words and line drawings. Given a task involving the words, the region of the subject’s brain associated with word recognition lit up as expected. But given a task involving pictures, the word-specific brain activity disappeared. The brain was now oblivious to the words even though the eyes were looking right at them.”

So, how does this impact a volleyball coach?  Perhaps we need to be much more specific as to what we want our players to watch. In the book “The Power of Habit”, written by Charles Duhigg, former NFL coach Tony Dungy was particular in the visual keys he wanted his players to focus upon.

So rather than creating new habits, Dungy was going to change players’ old ones. And the secret to changing old habits was using what was already inside players’ heads. Habits are a three-step loop, the cue, the routine, and the reward but Dungy only wanted to attack the middle step, the routine.

Take Regan Upshaw, a Buccaneer defensive end who has settled into a three-point stance on the scrimmage line. Instead of looking up and down the line, trying to absorb as much information as possible, Upshaw is looking only at the cues that Dungy taught him to focus. First, he glances at the outside foot of the opposite lineman (his toes are back, which means he is preparing to step backward and block while the quarterback passes); next, Upshaw looks at the lineman’s shoulders (rotated slightly inward), and the space between him and the next player (a fraction narrower than expected). Upshaw has practiced how to react to each of these cues so many times that, at this point, he doesn’t need to think. He merely follows his habits. But rather than looking multiple places at once, Dungy put them in a sequence and told him, ahead of time, the choice to make when he saw each key. The brilliance of this system was that it removed the need for decision-making.

Visual cues are known as keys, and they’re critical to every play. Dungy’s innovation was to use these keys as cues for reworked habits. He knew that, sometimes, Brooks hesitated a moment too long at the start of a play. There were so many things for him to think about. Is the guard stepping out of formation? Does the running back’s foot indicate he’s preparing for a running play or a passing play? Dungy’s goal was to free Brooks’s mind from all that analysis.

Let’s work on the under defense” Dungy shouted at a morning practice one day. “Number fifty-five, what’s your read? I’m watching the running back and guard,” said Derrick Brooks, an outside linebacker. “What precisely are you looking at? Where are your eyes? “I’m looking at the movement of the guard,” said Brooks. “I’m watching the QB’s legs and hips after he gets the ball. And I’m looking for gaps in the line, to see if they’re gonna pass and if the QB is going to throw to my side or away.

Using this information, it would seem that volleyball coaches need to be very specific when working with their players on what to focus upon during a play.  Observing a multitude of visual keys in a random, non-specific manner will result in the player not making the appropriate “read” of an upcoming play.  For example, many players that are receiving the serve will focus on the ball.  Coaches might encourage the following sequences of eye focus, “where is the server facing, what is the speed of the arm into the ball, at what trajectory is the ball leaving the hand, is this a short or long serve, place platform in the path of the ball”.  Coaches need to arrive at key aspects of what they want their players to see and work with them to create a habit that reflects the key aspects of a skill.  If done correctly, coaches will reduce the number of times they growl “why didn’t she see that?”