Perceptual-Cognitive Skill

Anticipating serve direction from situational probabilities

How do professional tennis players anticipate the direction on an opponent’s serve when it is propelled over 200kph? Detecting key kinematic cues certainly assists anticipation, as the best receivers can accurately guess the direction of the serve before the ball has been hit based on pre-contact movements. Lots of research has focused on the role of kinematic cues when anticipating. Contextual information also plays an important role, as sometimes a player will know the direction of the serve based on a players habits. Less research has focused on the role of contextual information.

The use of contextual information for anticipating is commonly referred to as “situational probability“.

The Study

Farrow and Reid (2012) examined whether skilled junior tennis players could detect situational probabilities to anticipate the direction of the serve. Two groups of participants were analysed: players aged 11 years and players aged 17 years. All participants watched videos of tennis serves and their task was to touch the screen as quickly as possible where they thought the serve was going to land. The task was manipulated so that the first serve of every game was directed down the T. Hence, if players could detect situational probabilities, they should anticipate the direction of the first serve of every game faster as the match progresses.

The Finding

The results are illustrated in the figure below. It was clear that the older players detected situational probabilities to aid anticipation after the 8th game, whereas the younger group did not.

Extracted from Farrow & Reid (2012)

Reasons why the younger group did not detect situational probabilities

There are at least two possible explanations:

  • young children’s cognitive functions have not matured sufficiently to detect situational probabilities in complex environments.
  • the speed of the serve for young players might not demand anticipatory skill to be successful. In other words, young children serve the ball relatively slow, meaning that a receiver might not need to detect kinematic cues or situational probabilities to successfully return the ball. It seems logical that if the game does not demand anticipatory skill, then young players won’t develop this skill.


Farrow, D., & Reid, M. (2012). The contribution of situational probability information to anticipatory skill. Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport, 15(4), 368-373.


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