Perceptual-Cognitive Skill

What do we know about anticipation in sport?

The ability to anticipate future events is an important skill for many sports. It is therefore no surprise that anticipation in sport has been a key research focus over the past 30 years.

Florian Loffing and Rowen Canal-Bruland recently summarized this body of literature.

How do we anticipate?

There are 2 sources of information that influence our ability to anticipate future events: kinematic information and contextual (or situational) information. Kinematic information refers to bodily movements (e.g., anticipating the direction of the serve based on shoulder positioning), whereas contextual information refers the situation (e.g., anticipating the direction of the second serve based on the direction of previous second serves).

Detecting kinematic cues

Most of the anticipation research has focused on kinematic information. These studies have typically adopted temporal occlusion or spatial occlusion paradigms. Temporal occlusion involves the shortening of video clips whereas spatial occlusion involves the removal of body parts from the video clip (e.g., a person’s arms will be removed from the video clip).

These paradigms have highlighted the superiority of skilled athletes over less skilled athletes in anticipating future actions when less kinematic information is presented (temporal occlusion). It has also highlighted the body parts that represent the key sources of information for successful anticipation (spatial occlusion). For instance, when anticipating tennis groundstrokes, skilled players used more global sources of information (shoulders, hips, legs, arm-racket), whereas less skilled players relied primarily on local-end effector information (arm-racket).

Ultimately, skilled athletes use more efficient gaze behaviour strategies that are characterized by fewer fixations of longer duration.

Can we train the ability to detect kinematic cues?

An important question is: Can a novice be trained to detect key kinematic cues, and does this improve the ability to anticipate future events?

This research has predominately used computer-based training programs to direct participants’ attention to key kinematic cues. Whilst participants often do display improved anticipatory skill, the authors highlighted a number of unresolved issues. These include: “structure of practice, transfer to the field, sustainability of training effects, or optimal instruction and feedback techniques to promote both rate of learning and robustness of skill-recall under stress.”

Using contextual information

Less research has focused on anticipation due to contextual information. However, it is evident that information such as an opponents strengths and weaknesses and previous performances contribute to the ability to anticipate future events.

For instance, Bruce Abernethy and colleagues observed that expert badminton players anticipated their opponents actions better than chance prior to their opponent initiating any movement. In other words, prior to kinematic information becoming available, the expert players were already successfully anticipating the subsequent shot. This highlights the role of non-kinematic information in anticipation.

Relying on contextual information

Knowledge of contextual information can be both beneficial and detrimental to anticipation. For instance, when a specific action is expected and it occurs, anticipation is enhanced. However, when an action is expected and it does not occur, anticipation is hindered. This has been demonstrated in time-constrained tasks, including European Handball goalkeeping and baseball batting.

The focus for future research

The authors highlighted at least 3 areas for future research:

  • Understand how kinematic and contextual sources of information interact to contribute to anticipation.
  • Determine whether video-based testing is (in)sufficient to capture skilled anticipation. The follow on from this is to develop measures of anticipation that maintain perception-action coupling.
  • Assess the transfer of skill between domains or tasks (e.g., from training to competition).


Loffing, F., & Cañal-Bruland, R. (2017). Anticipation in sport. Current Opinion in Psychology.


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