What does it take to make a great athlete? The Human Performance Lab at the University of Texas at San Antonio studies the mental aspects of physical competition. Their research could help ordinary athletes become extraordinary competitors.
For elite athletes, the difference between good and great, failure or success, can be measured in millimeters or milliseconds.
That’s why practice is crucial to enhanced performance.
William Land, Ph.D., who specializes in sports psychology in the Kinesiology Department at UTSA heads up the Human Performance Lab. He helps athletes identify and correct weaknesses in their performances by using auditory and visual feedback.
"We’re able to track movements. We’re able to track objects," Land explains. "And from that we’re able to provide feedback to the learner and we’re able to manipulate and control how he learns. We’re trying to look at the cognitive and psychological factors that affect human performance."
In the lab, six infrared cameras ring the room recording images that are sent to a computerized motion-sensing system that creates a three-dimensional image. The camera tracks reflective dots stuck to athletes' clothing.
In one experiment, the athlete grabs a golf ball covered in a reflective silver coating. He throws it at a tiny target on the floor. When he hits the target, a beeping sound goes off signaling success.
What scientists are finding is the positive auditory feedback can condition athletes for peak performance. And surprisingly, that sound may even help right-handers perform better with their left hands, according to Dr. Land, who is a former collegiate golfer.
"You have all the people who tell you how to swing a golf club, how to kick a field goal, you have the people that teach you the technical side of it, but we don’t really fully understand the mental side of it," Land pointed out.
Training athletes to focus their attention could help prevent performance breakdowns, for instance, enabling a basketball player to sink more free throws, or keeping a golfer from choking on crucial putts.
Masters student Camilla Nolen says the work is enjoyable. "It’s fun," she said. "We get to hang out all day and play golf and toss the golf balls to different targets. So it’s a fun way of doing research."
The work being done here isn’t just for athletes. This research may also help patients who have to relearn motor skills after suffering a stroke.
Graduate student Elena Camargo is looking at pupil dilation and how it correlates with different areas of the brain when subjects simply think about a particular physical movement.
"In someone that’s suffered a stroke, if we perform some sort of testing like this, if we just have them imagine moving a certain limb, with simple pupil dilation we could see that that area of the brain is unaffected, instead of having to do a more expensive and more invasive treatment such as an MRI," Camargo explained.
At the moment, much of the research in UTSA’s Human Performance Lab is just that. Research. Theoretical. But Dr. Land is in talks with some local organizations and teams to apply what he’s working on in the lab on football fields, basketball courts and golf courses.