Perceptual-Cognitive Skill

A comparison of computer-based methods to train anticipatory skill

How do you improve an athlete’s ability to anticipate future events in sport?

The obvious answer is to consistently expose the athlete to game-play during on-field training. But what if the athlete is injured and cannot physically train? Or what if the athlete is under work load restrictions, and physical training is off-limits? In these instances, computer-based methods are often adopted.

Whilst computer-based methods are limited by the fact they restrict, or often remove, the coupling between an athletes action and environmental cues, there is evidence to suggest that such methods can improve anticipatory skill.

The study

Bruce Abernethy, a leader within the field of skill acquisition, led a study that assessed the ability of novice European handball goalkeepers to anticipate an opponents shot direction. The study compared 4 computer-based training methods against a placebo group and a control group. The training methods included:

  • Explicit learning group – participants were provided with “if-then” instructions. For example, “if a major rotation around the axis of the throwing side shoulder is observed, then the shot will be directed to the same side of the goal as that of the throwing arm.”
  • Implicit learning group – participants were instructed to determine whether each video clip was the same or different as the previous video clip. This was thought to guide participants to attend to the key kinematic cues, but participants were not expected to become consciously aware of these cues.
  • Verbal cueing group – participants were provided with general instructions to attend to key kinematic cue (i.e., the throwing arm’s shoulder).
  • Colour cueing group – a red transparent marker was positioned over the key kinematic cues (i.e., throwing arm’s shoulder) in the video clip .
  • Placebo group – participants watched videotapes of competitive matches and were told to focus on the goalkeeper’s behaviour as this would benefit their performance.
  • Control group – participants completed no training.

Each group (except for the control group) underwent 2 days of training (336 video clips). The ability to anticipate shot direction in a computer task was measured before training (pre-test), after training (post-test), and 5 months after training (retention test).

During the post-test, each group also performed the task in a condition that aimed to increase anxiety. Anxiety was increased by telling participants that they had been paired with another participant and that they would receive a 10 Euro reward if both members of the pair showed a 10% improvement. Participants were also told that their partner had already achieved a 10% improvement.

The results

Only 2 groups improved anticipation accuracy significantly more than the control group – the explicit instruction group and the verbal cueing group. Interestingly, no group improved significantly more than the placebo group.

Abernethy et al (pre post).png
Extracted from Abernethy et al (2012)

When anxiety was heightened during the post-test, the implicit learning group displayed the best performance, and were significantly better than the explicit learning group. However, it must be acknowledge that the increased anxiety did not lead to poorer performance. In fact, every group displayed better performance during this condition.

During the 5 month retention test, only the implicit learning group improved significantly more than the control group.

Abernethy et al (retention).png
Extracted from Abernethy et al. (2012)

Which method is best?

The results indicate that explicit “if-then” rules and verbal cueing are the most effective approaches to achieve short-term improvements in anticipatory skill. However, instructions that facilitate implicit learning appear to be more beneficial over a longer-period. Skills learnt implicitly are also more likely to be performed better when anxiety is heightened.

A limitation of this study, which the authors acknowledged, was that there was no transfer test (i.e., an assessment of performance when responding to real-life shots at goal). Hence, we cannot comment on which method leads to best performance during competition.


Abernethy, B., Schorer, J., Jackson, R. C., & Hagemann, N. (2012). Perceptual training methods compared: the relative efficacy of different approaches to enhancing sport-specific anticipation. Journal of experimental psychology: Applied18(2), 143.

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