Anticipation has been widely studied in sport science over the past 30 years. The ability to anticipate what will happen next is often the key differential between the best athletes and the ‘rest’.
Take Steve Smith for example who is arguably the best batter in world cricket at the moment. His ability to move into a position early enough to strike the ball effectively enables him to consistently perform at a very high level. And he often needs to do this when facing fast bowlers who are releasing the ball at >140 kph, meaning he has about 450 milliseconds to react and play the right shot.
At some point in Smith’s developmental pathway, from first picking up a cricket bat to debuting for the Australian team, his ability to anticipate would have been nurtured. The questions of when and why remain a speculation.
Juanita Weissensteiner and colleagues progressed our understanding of when anticipation develops by studying cricket batters of various ages and skill levels.
102 cricket batsmen participated in the study. The breakdown of participants was as follows:
- U15 – Skilled (n = 21)
- U15 – Less Skilled (n = 20)
- U20 – Skilled (n = 18)
- U20 – Less Skilled (n = 20)
- Adult (>20y) – Skilled (n = 13)
- Adult (>20y) – Less Skilled (n = 10)
Skilled batsmen had all attained state or national representation, whereas the less skilled batsmen had not, despite playing cricket for a similar number of years as the skilled players.
Participants completed 2 tasks for the study: (1) a task that measured their ability to anticipate a bowler’s delivery and (2) an interview with the researcher. The interview focused on questions relating to their sporting history – particularly in cricket.
Measuring anticipation is not an easy task. One method that has proven to be effective in differentiating players of different skill levels is temporal occlusion. For instance, in this study, participants watched bowlers on a screen, but the screen went black at specific moments, either before or after ball release. By occluding the vision early in the bowling action, the batter has less information to predict where the ball will be delivered, and this is where the expert advantage often lies. In this study, participants were asked to predict the swing of the ball (out-swinger or an in-swinger) and the length of the delivery (short or full).
The key findings were:
- Skilled older players (U20 and adults) anticipated more accurately than the skilled younger players (U15).
- The difference between the skilled older players and the skilled U15 players occurred just prior to ball release (i.e., between the bowler’s front-foot hitting the ground and the moment that ball was released). This implies that the skilled older players were able to utilise information presented during this time period to successfully anticipate.
- Hence, the skilled U15 batsmen had not yet developed the ability the anticipate the delivery based on the cues presented just prior to ball release.
- This ability to predict the delivery based on the cues just prior to ball release was also not apparent in any of the lesser skilled age groups.
- The skilled players of all ages reported to have engaged in approximately 2-3 times more of organised cricket than their lesser skilled counterparts.
The authors speculated 2 possible reasons why the skilled U15 batsmen displayed lack of ability to utilise advanced cues to anticipate a bowler’s delivery:
“One possibility is that anticipatory skills may be less important in junior competition levels as the bowling speeds are generally slower and may not impose sufficient time constraints to make advance judgments on the basis of prerelease information necessary for success.”
“A second possibility is that, while anticipation may be potentially important for batting even in the junior age groupings, the ability of players to detect subtle postural information from the bowler may require the accumulation of repeated perceptual exposure to bowlers’ movement patterns of such volume that there is simply insufficient time to accrue the request experience by age 15–20 years.”
Notably, the results in this study were similar to research in tennis.
Weissensteiner, J., Abernethy, B., Farrow, D., & Müller, S. (2008). The development of anticipation: A cross-sectional examination of the practice experiences contributing to skill in cricket batting. Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 30(6), 663-684.