ASU professor chalks it up to observational learning
To the Barcalounger quarterbacks, to the chiseled Greek gods at the Elks club, to the sports-bar barnacle whose other tab is at Big & Tall — you’ve been right all along: You can become a better athlete from watching so much sports on TV.
It’s called observational learning, and it’s due to the brain's ability to pick up subtle cues.
“Watching other people perform does seem to help you perform,” said Rob Gray, an associate professor of human systems engineering at Arizona State University’s Polytechnic School. Gray studies the dynamics of perception, cognition and action in skilled performance like driving and sports.
A connoisseur who has logged millions of couch hours is more visually acute, Gray said.
“You’re learning to pick up subtle differences in the movement of your opponents and anticipate what they’re going to do next,” he said.
Gray highlighted the curious fact in a recent edition of his podcast Perception and Action. He features his research and studies from others in his field to illustrate lectures.
In “Perception Through the Eyes of a Fan — Is Watching Sports a Skill That Improves With Practice?” Gray cited a 2009 study that investigated the ability to anticipate the outcome of a basketball free throw. Researchers tested three groups: expert basketball players; expert observers, such as coaches and sports reporters; and people who neither played basketball nor watched it on TV.
What they found was the players could predict the outcome of a free throw earlier and more accurately than the other two groups. That’s not a surprise, but both players and expert viewers showed increased brain activity while watching the shots. The third group did not show as much increased activity while watching.
“Having extensive experience watching a sport changes the way you perceive it when watching,” Gray said. “You understand what you see if you’ve played it yourself.”
“It’s learning the body language of your opponent, picking up what we call advanced cues.”
— Rob Gray, ASU associate professor of human systems engineering
One example of TV trying to provide that perception was the infamous Fox blue puck. Introduced in 1996, the blue puck was actually called "FoxTrax," an effect Fox Sports used to help people in America follows the puck during hockey broadcasts. The puck was highlighted in blue, and when a player took a shot, the puck was followed by a red streak.
“The idea was if you make it easier to follow the puck, more people will enjoy it,” said Gray, a Canadian who called the idea “distracting” and “silly.”
“For true hockey fans, this was laughable,” he said. “If you watch a lot of hockey, you know where it’s going to go.”
The blue puck has been called one of the worst blunders in TV sports history. Canadians endlessly mocked it in satire, song and a Molson commercial where an American marketer pitched the idea to executives and was ejected from the room trailing a blue comet.
Athletes learn to read subtle cues, like a player’s hips in football signaling where he’s going to run. Viewers can do the same watching sports from their couches.
“It’s learning the body language of your opponent, picking up what we call advanced cues,” Gray said. “Your opponent has to learn to try to suppress them. That’s where you get the deception on the other side, like a baseball player has to learn not to tip their pitches. … It’s almost like a cat-and-mouse game between both sides.”
Watching sports can also trigger mirror neurons, the brain cells used to generate a movement triggered by observing that same movement. The classic non-sporting example is yawning. When you see other people yawn, you almost always yawn too.
“This kind of relationship between perceiving and acting is linked,” Gray said. “When you’re an athlete and you have experience with a sport, when you watch it you have a lot more to gain watching TV.”
Don’t rejoice just yet, lord of the La-Z-Boy. You still have to be able to react. Knowing a pitcher is going to throw you a fastball is not going to make you a great hitter, Gray cautioned.
“When you’re sitting back on the couch with a beer watching sports, you’re actually improving your ability to understand and anticipate what is going on,” he said. “However, this ability to perceive your favorite sport would be improved even more, and it would lead to other benefits too, if you actually got off up your butt and played it.”