Identifying the behavioural and biological mechanisms underpinning elite performance in aiming tasks

Lead Research Organisation: University of Birmingham
Department Name: Sport, Exercise & Rehabilitation Science


In the pursuit of expertise in sport, a particular interest has been to ascertain how expert and novice performers use the visual system differently to allocate attention and guide performance. A recent review of the literature highlighted some of the key skill-based differences that have been reported both in regard to how performers allocate limited attention resources within the visual field and the manner in which the different components of visual system (i.e., the fovea, parafovea and periphery) are employed to capture relevant information to guide action. Of particular interest in aiming tasks is the work on the quiet eye period (QE), defined as the final fixation on the target prior to initiation of the obligatory motor response toward the target. A longer QE period, with an earlier onset of QE has been consistently reported to characterise expert performance, as well as performance outcome. During this time, it is proposed that the movement parameters for the required action are set. However, despite the plethora of research on QE, the underlying mechanisms and neural activity present during this behaviour are unknown. By increasing our knowledge of the mechanisms underpinning the effective use of vision, in particular QE, we can explore how training programmes can be designed to facilitate performance across numerous domains. The current project aims to identify the functional and neural mechanisms of QE, and how these interact with stress, specifically anxiety, and whether we can use this knowledge to expedite skill learning and modify behaviour.

In Phase One of this project, we will examine whether QE can protect against distracting stimuli, to keep the performer focused on the task-relevant cues. Subsequently, we will use brain-imaging techniques to highlight key areas of the brain that are activated during QE. We will compare gaze behaviours and neural activation between elite and sub-elite archers using an aiming task. This will enable us to identify structural differences in behaviours between skill levels.

In Phase Two of this project, we will use the same task as in Phase One, but test archers in the real-world environment. We will also manipulate anxiety via financial incentives and peer-based competition. This will enable us to identify how the mechanisms identified in Phase One are affected by stressors. By comparing between skill levels, it will enable us to identify how anxiety is mediated by expertise.

In Phase Three of this project, based on the data gathered from the previous phases, we will design and implement training interventions which aim to improve the gaze behaviours of sub-elite athletes. Specifically, we will attempt to modify QE behaviour to promote effective and efficient attention control. We will also monitor brain activation throughout the intervention to identify any neurological changes that occur as a result of training.

The project will identify the mechanisms underpinning expert performance in aiming skills and determine whether learning can be expedited through trans-magnetic simulation and behavioural modifications. Our work will highlight the neural activation during QE for the first time, enabling the development and monitoring of superior skill. Moreover, the project will improve conceptual understanding of how performance is influenced by anxiety and whether, and in what manner, any negative effects may be mediated by expertise. The knowledge generated will help refine and develop methods employed to improve perceptual and cognitive skills in other professional fields such as the military, law enforcement, emergency services, medicine/healthcare, as well as in education and training more generally.

Technical Summary

In aiming tasks, the final fixation on a target before the initiation of action (quiet eye period; QE) has been shown to differentiate expertise and performance levels. A prolonged QE may permit task-salient cues to be prioritised so that cortical resources are likely reallocated away from irrelevant sensory cues and toward the visuospatially dominant processes critical for effective motor programming. However, the cognitive and neural mechanisms that underlie the behaviour have never been systematically examined. We have recently shown how TMS can be used in conjunction with fMRI imaging to reveal both the interactivity and necessary role of different brain regions in human attentional control. The current project will utilise these advanced neuroscientific procedures to elucidate the necessary role of different brain regions in QE behaviour. In Phase One, we will carry out behavioural studies, which aim to evaluate whether one effect of QE behaviour is to facilitate the filtering-out of irrelevant distraction and whether this ability varies with expertise. We examine the neural structures that are recruited under QE conditions and how these interact with crowding effects. Subsequently, we combine TMS with fMRI to test the necessary role of the different brain regions identified. In Phase Two, we will assess how increases in anxiety interact with QE and performance in situ, and examine how these effects are mediated by expertise. In Phase Three, we design and implement training interventions to improve perceptual-motor and cognitive performance. We test if a training protocol designed to optimise QE behaviour will (i) enhance effects of QE behaviour on filtering-out distraction as well as on firing behaviour, and (ii) changes the brain mechanisms involved in implementing QE effects. This innovative approach using breakthrough technical advancements will have significant implications for neuroscience and sports science.

Planned Impact

This project will have both a significant economic and social impact. First, the results of this translational research can be applied to various areas of society. For example, in Phase Two, we examine the effect of anxiety on performance in aiming tasks. This has implications for aiming in other domains, such as laws enforcement, and the military, where individuals are faced with high-anxiety situations. The knowledge gained in the current project can help understand how performance can be maintained under these highly stressful situations to enable successful outcomes, and minimise error. Similarly, surgeons can also benefit this application. For instance, during laparoscopic surgery, the surgeon has to aim and manipulate probes in order to carry out the operation. Understanding how anxiety effects visual attention and performance would allow training interventions or strategic protocols to be developed to overcome the negative affects of this stressor. Not only would this increase performance levels and reduce error, it also would make surgical procedures safer.

The most direct impact of the work will be in the sport of archery. As the project is supported by GB Archery and we will be utilising a sample of elite performers, the findings will have substantial impact on the sport. Specifically, we will be able to determine key behavioural characteristics that affect performance, and identify more efficient methods of training, not only elite, but sub-elite and grass roots archers. The expediting of skill acquisition will not only improve performance, keeping Britain at the top of the world stage, but also impact on coaching practice. The results of the study will be used to redesign the coaching methods used throughout the sport. The work will be disseminated to athletes, coaches and educators in the sport, as well as other similar aiming sports in the UK. The translational value of the results is likely to extend to a number of sports, which will provide opportunities to undertake further research.

The development of the training intervention and identification of more effective and efficiency training strategies will also benefit other areas of society. For example, in the education and learning sector, the results could have significant impact on processes and applied practice. The increase in knowledge and improvement in methods will significantly reduce the time, money and resources needed to develop the next generation of surgeons, soldiers, police officers and sports stars.

Alongside the practical and applied impact of the research there will also be major theoretical impacts. In particular, in the areas of neuroscience and sport science, the research is at the cutting-edge and will make substantial theoretical advancements. Specifically, identifying the neural activation during QE and how these structures differ between skill levels, and under high-anxiety scenarios, demonstrates a considerable step in understanding visual attention and performance. The findings derived from the work will be disseminated via national and international conferences, and high-impact peer- reviewed journal articles, book chapters and professional publications, in both neuroscience and sport science specific outlets.


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Gonzalez C (2017) Exploring the quiet eye in archery using field- and laboratory-based tasks in Experimental Brain Research

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Gonzalez CC (2017) Identifying the causal mechanisms of the quiet eye. in European journal of sport science

Description This grant is a joint application. Joint reference: M1534300 Lead document with Professor M Williams Please refer to the lead submission for this return.