By Anastasia Christakou, British Science Association Media Fellow 


What does it take to be a top sportsperson? Researchers at the University of Bradford have teamed up with the England and Wales Cricket Board to find out.

At the British Science Festival, Dr Alice Cruickshank who works on the project says “yes, you can definitely teach people to catch balls better”; but what is it that makes some excel?

In the cold, echoey sports hall of the University of Bradford, it quickly becomes evident that whatever that is, I do not have it.

Nathan Beebe, who also works with the team, is firing balls at me at 30 miles an hour using a BOLA cricket bowling machine. Thankfully, he is using slow, fluffy tennis balls and not the solid, 90 mile-an-hour cricket balls some of his usual participants might encounter in the field.

Nathan and Alice measure the ball-catching skills of top cricketers and rugby players, as part of a project studying vision processes in elite athletes. Their team, led by Brendan Barrett, a visual development scientist, are asking if exceptional vision contributes to what sets apart the best-performing athletes from the rest of us.

But the team are not testing people’ eyesight in the same way the optometrist would in your high street (although their extensive assessments include more familiar vision acuity tests). They are using motion-tracking technology to study how people catch a moving ball. To do this, the team locate infrared markers on their participants’ hands and track their hand movement speed and grip size as they hurtle balls towards them. They can make things even more difficult for their participants, by changing the speed of the ball, or hiding some of its trajectory. These measurements are part of a much larger dataset collected to study how vision and fine motor skills are different in top athletes compared to others.

Nick Holmes from the University of Nottingham, who is not involved in the study, says this work is important because “people differ widely in their hand-eye coordination skills, and there may not be a simple way to test for it”. He explains that “having sensitive tests that relate most directly to the skills you are looking for is likely to be needed”, especially since “the brain areas and pathways required for rapid hand-eye-coordination in some ball sports is likely to differ from that required, for example, of an archer or a golfer or a proof-reader”.

The project is nearing completion, with a score of data already collected and being analysed. It was first unveiled in September 2012, a month after the London Olympics. It was one of three projects supported by a £1.4m initiative by the national high performance agency, UK Sport, and the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, aimed at bringing more future Olympic medals to the UK.

Brendan and his team say this kind of research could identify individuals with the potential for elite performance, as well as help coaches optimise the training of athletes. Nick also thinks that this kind of work can help us understand how we all use our bodies to interact with our environment - from handwriting, to performing surgery, playing a musical instrument, or conducting an orchestra.

Dr Anastasia Christakou is a 2015 British Science Association Media Fellow. Her Fellowship was funded by the BBSRC, and her placement was at Nature. Anastasia is an Associate Professor in the School of Psychology and Clinical Language Sciences at the University of Reading.