When you are sitting at the start line of a race, looking towards the finish line, sometimes it seems a heck of a lot further away than it should. Turns out that how my body is feeling may be affecting how far away I see the finish line.
Jessica Witt is a cognitive psychologist at Colorado State University. She has been studying how your physical traits or abilities actually affect how you see (or perceive) visual objects. After a softball game players were asked to choose the circle (out of several) that was the same size as the softball. Players who had done well at bat thought the ball was larger, and those who kept missing thought the ball was smaller.
In another study, she asked players to kick field goals (U.S. football). The ball had to go over a crossbar that connects two vertical posts. Afterwards, they adjusted a small model of the posts to match the proportions of the goal. They could look at the goal while they did this. But players who kicked the ball too low set the crossbar on the model higher and anyone who kicked the ball wide set the uprights in the model closer together. This demonstrates that they were actually seeing the goal differently.
How we perceive the distance to something is also affected. Individuals with chronic pain believe that target distances are farther away, compared to a control group.
One of the determining factors seems to be the role of effort. If the effort it takes to do something increases, the perceived distance also increases. So, then my question is how does this affect how you prepare for a race?
From watching my dragon boat team (and paddling with them) we do really well if we are in front. We even do pretty well if we are able to stay close to a team that we believe to be better than us. But if a team we are not expecting to be close is close, or if we get left in the dust and we weren’t expecting it, our performance goes downhill fast. Does the research on visual perception and physical performance relate?
These are exclusively my thoughts on the matter but I think they do. When that team pulls away I would not be surprised if we overestimate the distance between us and them. This probably also affects how long the race course seems. So all of a sudden, because the effort we were giving needs to be increased, the perceived distances increase. I would guess that the same thing happens if a team we did not expect to be close stays close during the race. We understand that more effort is required, and that makes the distance seem longer.
The challenge with this is that now, all of a sudden, the effort needs to increase and the race seems longer. Both of these can be demoralizing. Thoughts start to creep into your head “but I was giving my all, I don’t have anything left”, “I can’t make it to the end”. And as soon as that line gets further away, my guess is that many people will start to adjust their effort so that they do have enough energy to finish the race. Unfortunately, if the distance is “longer” that means less effort in each individual moment, which just compounds the problem.
What is obvious from the research is that none of this is conscious. We know rationally that a softball is always the same size, and yet we perceive it differently based on our performance. So how, do we combat our unconscious?