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Why Cristiano Ronaldo is Probably a Better Driver than You

Mens Semis - USA v BRAronaldo

“Attention is the holy grail, everything that you’re conscious of, everything you let in, everything you remember and you forget, depends on it.” David Strayer, a University of Utah researcher, made the importance of attention very clear in this quote from a 2010 New York Times article. However, attention is not static, it can be focused, divided, shifted, widened and narrowed. With a narrowing of attention, very apparent changes or entire objects (even gorillas) can be completely missed even if you are looking directly at it (don’t believe me? Watch this). There are many ways to narrow your attentional breadth, or the “spotlight” of your attention in which you can notice stimuli with high accuracy. But what about the possibility of having a larger attentional spotlight, to be able to be aware of what is happening in a larger spatial area?

First, we’ll review what is already known about attentional spotlights. One of the most common analogies for the attentional spotlight is that of a zooming lens; it trades accuracy and highly detailed resolution for the size of the field of vision, so when you extend your field of vision, you are less likely to see the small details than if you focus intently on one object. We also know that attentional abilities vary from person to person. Some of these abilities include dividing your attention (multitasking), how quickly you can shift your attention between stimuli, and how widely you can distribute your attention across your visual field.


The researchers of the recent study The Size and Shape of the Attentional “Spotlight” Varies with Differences in Sport Expertise investigated individual differences in the ability to distribute attention across your visual field by using expert athletes of different types and comparing them to novices. The main idea was that athletes, especially in team sports with many different stimuli that require attention, might be better at seeing things that are farther apart. More specifically, they believed that athletes who practiced sports like hockey, soccer, and handball would have a wider spotlight on the horizontal plane, because these sports require a very wide field of vision to take in everything that is going on. For sports like volleyball and basketball, they predicted that expert athletes would have an extended visual spotlight on the vertical axis due to the large amount of airborne stimuli (click here for more on factors that effect spatial attention).


The researchers defined expert athletes as people that practiced for at least eight hours a week and participated in competitions in their sport. Participants were then shown a series of slides (see below) with instructions to focus on the center of the screen. Next, two sets of stimuli consisting of different numbers of triangles of different shades of gray were briefly displayed. These stimuli varied on their distance apart as well as on which axis they laid (horizontal or vertical). Participants were then asked how many light gray triangles were present in each group, and correct responses were only scored if the numbers for both sides were correct. The researchers defined the boundaries of the attentional spotlight as the maximum distance separating the two stimuli sets where the participant had 75% accuracy in his or her answers.


So what did they find? Just as they had expected, athletes who were more practiced in horizontally oriented sports (soccer, hockey, and handball) had significantly wider attentional spotlights compared to both the control group of novices as well as the vertically oriented athletes (basketball and volleyball players). These vertical athletes had better vertical attentional spotlights compared to the other two groups. The differences found were actually rather large. The largest difference was between the horizontal athletes compared to the novices for the horizontal axis, a difference of about eight degrees for a total horizontal visual attentional spotlight of about 43 degrees out of 360.


So who cares? What does a measly four degrees on either side do for you? Well, imagine you are Cristiano Ronaldo, the Portuguese soccer player, and you are running as fast as you can with the ball at your feet. With a single glance upwards you need to be able to know where the defenders are, where your teammates are, where the goalie is in relation to the net, and not to mention where you are in relation to the field! Those extra four degrees could be the difference between making a perfect cross to a teammate and thinking you have no other option than to take it yourself and eventually lose the ball. Now imagine you’re Cristiano and your driving your Ferrari up I-95 to visit your friend Chris at Colby College. You’re driving along, looking at the road, when suddenly a deer jumps out from the side towards you. That extra four degrees of visual attention could easily be the difference of being able to avoid that deer and ruining your Ferrari (for more on how not to wreck your Ferrari look here and here).


Don’t go running out onto the field just yet though. This study was correlational, which means that we aren’t sure which way the relationship works. The athletes may have developed this widened attentional spotlight from extensive practice, or they may have gotten to be experts at their sport because they already had that enhanced breadth of attention. Another possible shortcoming of these findings is that the researchers mapped a three dimensional attentional field onto two dimensions. It is likely that the horizontal axis in this study maps onto the horizontal field in three dimensions, but it is possible that the vertical field used in this study (which they took to mean up or down) could represent depth of vision instead of vertical vision.


Even with these shortcomings, it leaves you thinking, can we train ourselves to have a larger attentional spotlight? It might be worth a try.




Hüttermann, S., Memmert, D., & Simons, D.J. (2014). The size and shape of the attentional “spotlight” varies with differences in sport expertise. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied, 20, 147-157.


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  1. October 19th, 2015 at 11:34 | #1

    Great post! It was wonderful to read that athletes could have enhanced attentional abilities. My brother is a spectacular soccer player, and whenever I watch his games, it always seems as though he knows where other players will be before they even get there! According to your post, there may be some accuracy to that observation!
    Your description of the way in which Ronaldo seems to play so incredibly fluidly and with so much skill made me think about the possible role that automaticity could play in this scenario, and its connection to the capacity framework model of attention. The development of automatic processes occurs when the various cognitive progressions that must take place to perform the task move more efficiently and fluidly because they have been practiced. For instance, you and I take reading as an automatic process. We just do it! However, if we break it down, we realize that there are many steps we have to take just to be able to read. First, we identify features of the letters, then we assemble them letter-by-letter, word-by-word, and then we apply meaning to these words. When we first begin reading, this process is slow and laborious. However, with practice, the steps become automatic, and we process the words more economically. It takes much less focus and effort for us to read once it has become an automatic process.
    The capacity framework model of attention was developed by Daniel Kahneman. The idea behind this model is that we have a finite amount of attention, and when we are engaged in a certain task, this task takes up a section of your attentional resources, allowing less availability for focus to be allocated to another task (if being performed at the same time).
    However, if the task has become automatic, it shouldn’t take up as much attentional resource, because it requires less cognitive effort to complete. Could it be said that some of the processes that Ronaldo has developed to play soccer have become automatic, and this is why he would be a more avid driver than the average person? According to this post, his attentional spotlight is horizontally oriented so he’d be able to pick up stimuli in his horizontal view that the average person may have attentional blindness to. Your post referenced the fact that this was a correlational study, so we can’t assume what caused what. Wouldn’t it be interesting to take a look at Ronaldo’s degree of automaticity when he plays?

  2. Maverick
    October 20th, 2015 at 23:31 | #2

    I thought that this post was very well done! I have been an athlete for almost my entire life but I never really thought about the role of cognitive psychology in athletics. As a volleyball player, knowing where to look and what to think about while on the court has become an automatic process that doesn’t require nearly as much thinking as it used to. But when trying to describe everything that I think about to another person, they make it seem like I am speaking a foreign language. As the setter, I have to know which hitters on my team are doing well, who the blockers are on the other team and how good they are, where the holes in the defense are and I have to avoid being too predictable in who I give the ball to. I also must be able to know where the ball is at all times and adjust both my defense and offense to where I predict the ball to go. For me, this has all become relatively simple so when I coach volleyball and try to describe all of this to a new setter, it can become frustrating when they do not get it. But it is important to remember that it takes a lot of time and practice to before it switches from a controlled to an automatic process.

  3. October 21st, 2015 at 15:59 | #3

    This is article is very interesting as it highlights individual differences in attention. Specifically, it showed how certain people (athletes that played in horizontal games) had a wider field of vision when it came to attentional spotlights. My question is how does this relate to attention as a filter? The study only showed how athletes were able have a wider span of attention, not whether they were able to focus in any better. Exogenous orienting is a reflexive capture of attention, like seeing a deer or defender and reacting to it. What about focusing on the ball itself? That would be an example of endogenous orienting, where we willingly focus on our attention on something. Would that translate to being better at blocking out irrelevant stimulus, like crowd noise?

    The study also notes that this is not necessarily a causal relationship; it’s correlational. Does that mean that individuals with high stimulus jobs, such as air traffic controllers, would also have a better field of vision and have a better attentional “filter?” In a job like that, they would need to be able to block out unrelated/ distracting stimuli, so I would assume so. Although, the two ideas seem contradictory; if you are better at tuning things out, it would be harder to also be better at seeing more things.

  4. October 22nd, 2015 at 11:18 | #4

    Before reading this article, I had never thought about the role our cognitive functions played in athletic ability. This article was really interested me because it not only compares the differences between the attentional spotlights of expert athletes and other individuals, but it also shows how depending on the sport the athlete participated in, there were large percent differences in their attentional abilities.

    Because this is a correlational study, it is important that the author pointed out that they are unable to determine if the athletes gained these attentional abilities through practice or if they excel in their sport because they already had significantly wider attentional spotlights. One possible explanation could use the capacity framework model of attention that explains we only have a limited amount of attentional capacity to devote to specific tasks, but if a task is practiced enough, it becomes automatic. This could explain that because Ronaldo has played soccer so much, dribbling the ball and picturing the layout of the field and his teammates has become somewhat automatic, and he is able to increase his horizontal field of vision because the task at hand is easier. But this would vary from task to task and would not account for a wider horizontal attentional field while driving.

  5. October 22nd, 2015 at 21:28 | #5

    I was wondering about the classification of “expert athletes”. According to the post, an expert athlete was someone who played his or her chosen sport for at least eight hours a week and competed in that sport. There doesn’t appear to be any criterion outlining how long the athlete had been playing or how intense the competition was. Furthermore, a minimum of eight hours a week leads to a range of experience. For example, I could be playing eight hours a week on a recreational soccer team and I could be in the same group as Cristiano Ronaldo. Obviously, our skill sets are different and it would follow that our attentional spotlights would differ.

    Another factor that is related could be the amount of inhibition that is going on. Athletes in general must be good at inhibiting superfluous information. They must inhibit distractions, such as the crowd, very peripheral movements, and noises, for example. This sort of inhibition seems to be key. So how would we predict the negative priming and Stroop test results of expert athletes that then develop dementia of Alzehimer’s type (DAT)? Evidence from the Stroop test regarding DAT individuals indicated that there are changes in the attentional processes that come early on in dementia. Would expert athletes that convert to DAT individuals show a narrowed attentional spotlight and be less able to inhibit distracting information? Would the attentional spotlight decrease once an expert stops practicing and a once completely automatic task becomes less automatic and easy? All of this would be very interesting to explore.

  6. October 26th, 2015 at 18:55 | #6

    As an athlete, I was interested in the article and the potential mental benefits when preparing to play a sport. Multi-tasking, broadly defined, can be attributed to almost every activity and is arguably part of everything we do. Sitting still and quiet in a lecture class, listening to the professor speak and writing down notes, or planning out your schedule for the week; the subject is using a form of multi-tasking. Some task are easier to preform together, such as sitting and spatial awareness or hearing and language detection. Others that cross brain pathways, for example memory recall and a motor skill can provide challenges and slower response time.

    In regards to the potential of enhanced spot light on athletes, I wonder if within a sport, do specific positions have vary results, similar to the hypothesized differences between sports. Another experiment to consider is that of spatial attention which could be examined using the same sport, but comparing gender difference as there is a known sexual dimorphism in sexes.

    While there may be an increase in attentional spot light in athletes, it could have been a correlation in continuous practice of attentional spot light. Individuals who train his or her attentional spot light can potentially have increased the spot light similarly to the athletes studied.

  7. cmrowlan
    October 26th, 2015 at 23:05 | #7

    I’ve actually never thought about how my cognitive ability effects my play and I’ve been playing sports since I was in grade school. I though this post was well written and engaging and it also happened to tie into sports which always grabs my attention. One of the things that interests me that I wish the study had somehow accounted for was the effect on outside cognitive uses other than just attentional scope, ie. vision, hearing, awareness, and situational awareness. I’ve played hockey since I was two (no retired) and currently still play football, and one of the first thing that comes to my mind is the use of sound on the playing field. Half of the time in hockey when I made passes it was because I had a mental awareness to predict where my teammate was and could hear their voice of clang of their stick compared to that of the defender. I also think it’s important to understand the ability that repetition has in ability in sports, as athletes are constantly practicing scenarios and skills, that once it comes time to perform, much of the action is done through rehearsal, when I’m reading a play in football, certain cues lead me to know the actions of other players and thus cause me to react without even fully seeing their location.
    For me this article really connects the idea that athletics involve using cognitive ability and lots of it, not just specifically attention.

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