Constraint and the perfect shot

by CarlD

Watching Andy Murray play Roger Federer (Wimbledon 2012) I’m struck by another case of constraint causation. The court, the surface, the net, the weather, the opponent, the rules of the game and a million other factors large and small create the conditions of the game in general and its particular instance in this match. They do so by ruling out all the things the game isn’t (backgammon, a brit milah, a French Open quarterfinal between Williams and Sharapova) and all the people who haven’t ‘earned’ their way there, so now it’s Fed and Murray in the Wimbledon men’s final.

All this sets the scene for both the match and my observation about it, which is that sometimes Murray second-guesses himself in the middle of a shot. Every point begins with a highly constrained space of possible plays – the serve – which then has a virtual infinity of permutations of speed, spin, angle, target. This wave function of possibility collapses into an actual serve which is just one of the shots it might have been, calling forth in turn a service return that has a possibility space constrained by all the conditions previously mentioned plus the particulars of the instant serve.

It is of course impossible to hit your return both crosscourt and down the line, both hard and soft, both topspinned and underspinned, although in theory and early in the process all of those are live and potentially good options. Every shot works like this – a big but constrained space of possibilities that must be collapsed into a single actual shot. And this is the thing that Murray sometimes fails to do – he seems to stay aware of options through the point of execution, consequently hitting shots that are trying impossibly to be both or all of the good options he needed to pick between.

The perfect tennis shot only becomes so by rigorously not being every other possible shot.

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24 Responses to “Constraint and the perfect shot”

  1. “Think? How can you hit and think at the same time?” wondered Yogi Berra. Pirates’ pitcher Steve Blass evidently tried too hard to do just that, resulting in the sudden onset of a chronic inability to throw strikes. Subsequently this problem has become known as “Steve Blass Disease.”

    From an embodied mind perspective I wonder how much of the real-time constraining of possible tennis shots happens consciously versus unconsciously, in the brain versus distributed through the rest of the body. Here’s one cognitive scientist’s constrained speculation on cricket batsmanship (p. 770):

    “The dynamic adaptability of successful batting under severe time constraints gives us reason to be sceptical about a distinct cognitive step mediating between perception and action. A focus on fast, fluid skills like batting helps to challenge the picture of cognition as an inner process ‘sandwiched’ between pick-up of information and behavioural output: instead, understanding of such flexible intelligent action in real time requires attention to the continuous coupling of perception and action, and the mutually modulatory dynamics operating between brain, body and world.

    “Specifically, batting is less a matter of producing a well-formed plan on the basis of perceptual input and then executing it, than of just acting on and in anticipation. Good players in a sense live in the future: success in batting, against bowling of any pace at least, depends more on the time-constrained prediction of the ball’s motion than on accurate perception of where the ball already is. So successful shot selection depends in part on the use of advanced cues. Contrary to coaching lore, the best players ‘do not watch the ball continuously’ from its release to the point of impact: instead, they focus on the point of release and then make an ‘anticipatory saccade’, looking ahead of the ball, so the fovea is lying in wait for the ball, so to speak, at the point where it is predicted to bounce. They then track the ball only briefly after it haspitched, before again jumping ahead of its trajectory as eye and head move rapidly down to try to track the ball’s final approach to the bat. The most significant difference between experts and novices in this regard, according to Land and McLeod, is that the top players’ initial anticipatory saccade starts earlier: the better you are, the less time you spend watching the ball, and the more you leap into the future. The smartness of the mechanisms involved in batting lies neither in primitive psychophysical differences in the perceptual system, nor in a larger or richer internal knowledge base. Rather it lies in the acquired embodied ability to extract relevant information afforded by all available sources to constrain the perception-action coupling so as to respond in timely fashion.”

  2. This is an accurate description of good tennis also, which I play every once in awhile in between the helpless flailing. The shots themselves, especially return of serve and volleys, are all about anticipation and reaction to something that hasn’t quite happened yet. Where thought comes in is at a more strategic level – when you’re playing well you’re so far in the future you actually preview the successful shot before you hit it. Federer at his best, as he was today, seems to see the point several shots ahead. And it’s funny, watching inexpert players you can see them living in the past – they react to the ball after it’s too late, often with a time-wasting startle, and visibly get in their own way with thoughts about what they’re supposed to do rather than reacting cleanly to the situation. (Some of this has to do with hoping the opponent will miss.) Murray at his worst is even worse – like a weekend warrior he loses two or three points at once sometimes because he can’t seem to get his inevitable failures out of his head and move on.

    You can also see bad teaching very clearly in the reaction sports. The bad teachers fill their students’ heads full of technical thoughts, a new one for every time the student doesn’t ‘do it right’, compounding the consciousness problem terribly. In these cases learning to play well is actually a process of unlearning the instruction. There are two great old books full of practical wisdom on this, one for tennis and one for golf. In The Little Red Book Harvey Penick pretty much keeps golf instruction to “Take dead aim.” And in The Inner Game of Tennis Tim Gallwey talks about getting the conscious, judgmental consciousness (‘mind one’) out of the way so the observing, reacting consciousness (‘mind two’) can just get on with hitting tennis balls.

    Anyway I hope I haven’t muddled your great point and example about the flexible coupling of intention and action (am I right this is some of what Deacon is getting at with entention?).

  3. It occurs to me that people who don’t play sports or otherwise engage in reaction activities – classic eggheads, for example – are likely to have a reflection bias about how consciousness and action are related. For them there’s always time for the mediating step between perception and action.

  4. Deacon models evolutionary competencies in a bottom-up linear progression, from entropy to full-on intentionality. If he spent much time on this sort of bodily expertise, intentionally learned and deployed but nearly instinctive in practice, he’d never have finished his book. “Embodied mind” is hot in cognitive psychology these days, with empirical studies focusing on intentional physical action that’s too quick to be fully conscious or planned. I like your observation about Federer seeing the point several shots ahead: it suggests what in all likelihood is a distinctively human capability, where discrete perceive-act iterations are embedded in a longer multi-shot scheme. I’m sure jazz musicians operate similarly, with their bar-by-bar improvisations unfolding within a longer progression. I’m not sure if the end is seen clearly from the beginning in these high-level skilled performances. Maybe it’s a trajectory or momentum, a leaning into a future that shows particular promise within the larger intentional schema of playing great tennis or great music.

  5. Speaking of leaning into the future, here’s a curious embodied-mind finding I read about recently. If you ask people to think/talk about some past event, they tend to lean slightly backward in their chairs. If they’re asked to think/talk about something in the future, they lean forward a litte.

  6. “I like your observation about Federer seeing the point several shots ahead: it suggests what in all likelihood is a distinctively human capability, where discrete perceive-act iterations are embedded in a longer multi-shot scheme.”

    I just realized I tend to treat that kind of physical mastery as something distinctively not-human, or at least not unique to us. Being able to operate at that level of control, and to stay present to what’s unfolding, always felt like more of a quieting of the distinctive human mental processes: shutting up the inner dialogue, only for a short space, in order to attend fully. My entirely fanciful speculations about other species’ experience always tends toward that space of relative quiet. We’re the neurotic mammal, thanks to some strange cognitive accident that also gives us lots of wondrous things I’m plenty grateful for.

    The question for me is whether the seeing-ahead taps into those human qualities, and I’m not sure. I remember realizing for the first time learning calculus that we were all doing it all the time – catching baseballs, driving cars. Takes a lot of foresight. So does chasing down another animal, or running from one. So then I think, is there something else to these physical feats beyond the muscle memory, the training designed to make itself unconscious, etc.? Probably, and I’d guess what-that-thing-is differs, at least to some extent, depending on the mastery. Seem of these qualities seem human unique, and a good deal seem to me like becoming a beast.

    On a side note, I always loved DF Wallace’s take on Federer- but then, tennis is well beyond their scope of my casual sports consumption. http://www.nytimes.com/2006/08/20/sports/playmagazine/20federer.html?pagewanted=all

  7. Research on catching a baseball identifies three main candidates for how fielders track the flight of the ball: (1) calculating the expected trajectory of the ball, running to the place where it will land; (2) tracking the ball’s acceleration upward and downward in the arc, then adjusting one’s movements toward the ball accordingly; (3) attending to the visual angle between the ball, home plate, and the ground between the ball, then moving to keep this angle constant throughout the ball’s flight. The article on cricket suggests that expert tennis players use method 1, the method that’s most reliant on “living in the future” and that’s most easily captured in a calculus equation. Most research on expert baseball players suggests that method 3 best accounts for the fielder’s path toward the ball — a method that relies on constant adjustments in the present rather than anticipating the future. Some recent work involving computer-simulated tinkering with ball trajectories points to method 2, which again relies on iterative adjustments during the ball’s flight rather than future anticipation. But the tennis player doesn’t only have to catch the ball; he has to return it, preferably in a way that makes it hard for his opponent to return. So it’s a more difficult skill, perhaps relying more on method 1 for actually intersecting the racket head with the ball’s flight.

    What I thought indicated human uniqueness wasn’t the ability to return a single shot. As you say, frogs are really good snagging flies out of the air and so on. It’s the deployment of a multishot sequence of volleys that suggests longer-term planning based in part on the ability to anticipate the opponent’s intentions/abilities. Each volley requires this ability, but presumably the master player anticipates the action maybe 3 volleys into the future. No question though that tennis mastery builds on skill sets readily observed in nonhuman creatures.

  8. I’ve mentioned this book before, but it seems particularly relevant to this discussion: Gary Klein (2001) Sources of Power: How People Make Decisions. MIT Press. The book introduces the research behind the Recognition-Primed Decision Model, conducted with folks like fire fighters, jet pilots and tank commanders, who have to make life and death decisions in time-pressured situations. The core idea is that, instead of contemplating all of the possible actions and calculating which is best, we have a stack of possible actions and grab the first one that seems to fit the situation. If it works, fine. If not, or the situation changes, we grab the next one that seems to fit how things have changed. One thing I like about this model is that it provides a splendid rationale for learning and experience. The thing that separates the expert from the duffer is the number of different actions keyed to different assessments of the situation that the expert has in his or her stack. This improves the odds that the first action that seems the best fit for the circumstances in hand is, in fact, a good one to take.

  9. Further to Glasperlenspiel’s link, Wallace’s 1996 piece on Michael Joyce is also well worth reading (and particularly relevant to the post’s themes re: possibility and constraint). Man could write about tennis.

  10. The Wallace links are amazing. I’m hoping to do a longer post on them (and perhaps my weird non-relationship with Wallace) later today. Re: Klein and the bricolage of action/reaction, I am fascinated and all of that rings true. I remember reading a discussion of improvisation in preaching (with reference to MLK, iirc) that described it as a situated performance of prepared phrases and concepts, configured on the fly as the audience feedback plays out, which is my experience of improvising as a speaker and playing the blues as well. It also looks like what my cats do when they stalk and catch squirrels, to come back around. Here we might speak in terms of repertoire, but understood as resources (for resourcefulness) rather than a trunk of lifeless scripts.

  11. I just came across something else about tennis relevant to the perfect tennis shot. In his 2009 book Understanding Consciousness, Max Velmans explores the relationship between intentionality and consciousness:

    In the psychological literature consciousness is often thought to be necessary for carrying out voluntary acts (unless they are very well practised). This is particularly true if the acts are complex, novel, or require monitoring. Consider for example the degree of focused attention and complex muscle adjustments required to play a successful game of tennis. But there is a problem. If consciousness of what is happening does not arrive until at least 200 milliseconds after stimuli arrive at the cortex, conscious awareness is simply too slow for such adjustments to be conscious.

    Velmans then cites research from John McCrone (1999) on returning a serve in tennis:

    “Facing a fast serve, players have barely 400 milliseconds in which to see whether the ball is headed for the forehand or backhand, and then to make any late adjustments for unexpected skids or jumps of the ball off the court surface. Given that simply turning the shoulders and lifting the racket back occupies a third of a second, and that it takes about half a second to reach wide for a ball, anticipation has to have a role. Even if awareness were actually instant, it would not be fast enough to get a player across the court in time…

    “Tests were carried out in which novice and professional players were shown clips of a person serving. The film was stopped at different stages of the server’s actions and subjects were then asked to guess whether the ball was going to land on their forehand, backhand, or smack down the middle. Neither the novices or experts had any trouble predicting where the ball would go after seeing just 120 milliseconds of flight… But the significant finding was that professionals were able to guess the direction of the serve with fair accuracy if the film was halted forty milliseconds before the ball was struck. The seasoned players were gleaning hints from the way the server was shaping up during the ball toss, and not having to wait to sample the actual flight of the ball.”

    It turns out that the experts were not able to explain what cues they used to anticipate the ball’s flight — that in fact they didn’t even realize they were making these anticipatory adjustments. These results support Velmans’ general position in such instances that while “we are conscious of what we do, we are not conscious of how we do it.”

  12. This is probably yesterday’s lunch by now, but there’s an oldish minor classic that fits in with this line of thought, once jazz musicians are brought into the conversation: David Sudnow, WAYS OF THE HAND. MIT’78,’93, ’01

  13. On a harmonious note:

    “When I was a medical student in the 1950s, we were taught that the map of the somatosensory cortex discovered by Wade Marshall is fixed and immutable throughout life. We now know that idea is not correct. The map is subject to constant modification on the basis of experience… Thomas Elbert and his colleagues at the University of Konstanz in Germany compared images of violinists’ and cellists’ brains with images of nonmusicians’ brains [Elbert et al., Science, 1995]. Players of stringed instruments use the four fingers of the left hand to modulate the sound of the strings. The fingers of the right hand, which move the bow, are not involved in such highly differentiated movements. Elbert found that the area of the cortex devoted to the fingers of the right hand did not differ in string players and musicians, whereas representations of the fingers of the left hand were much more extensive — by as much as five times — in the brains of string players than in those of nonmusicians. Furthermore, musicians who began playing the instrument before age thirteen had larger representations of the fingers of their left hand than musicians who began playing after that age.”
    – Eric Kandel, In Search of Memory, 2006

    I know of Sudnow’s book but have never read it; now I’ve requested it from interlibrary loan so I can have a look — thanks for mentioning it, DtE.

  14. Nice. Thanks for these great connections, DtE and John. I just passed this last quote along to a colleague who’s taking up mandolin!

  15. I found Ways of the Hand to be a strange book, written almost in a foreign vocabulary that Sudnow introduces to explain experiences not readily captured in ordinary language. He experiences his growing expertise less in his head than in his hands, his shoulders, his feet, his singing voice. Part of his difficulty in explaining his progressive mastery of the jazz idiom in concepts and language must be due to the essentially bodily quality of the achievement.

  16. I think you’re right. I’ve thought that I really couldn’t understand it in the way it should be understood, because of my musical limitations. When people ask me about the “hows” of wood carving, I say that my hands know things my head will never know — just as opaque as Sudnow, but I’ll stick to it. One of the troubles in being an academic is that you’re taught to locate intelligence primarily in discursive space. I’m sure that’s wrong, but the alternatives entail a certain ineffability that has be replaced by “See, like this.” while you’re doing. I guess that’s what Sudnow is trying to do — discursively.

  17. That settles it: I’m getting my hands on The Hands of Orlac from the library. Here’s IMDB’s thumbnail of the 1924 Austrian silent film:

    “A world-famous pianist loses both hands in an accident. When new hands are grafted on, he doesn’t know they once belonged to a murderer.”

  18. Ha! OK, so I’ve been baking a lot of bread lately. I’d dabbled before, but I started getting a bit serious about yeast-wrangling. I’ve read a lot of descriptions of the process, discussion boards and so on. The thing that gets (or should get) really clear really quickly is that a ‘recipe’ just barely gets you started. And you can talk about the biochemistry of yeast and lactobacilli and hydration ratios and such and it’s very illuminating. And you can provide guidelines about kneading and folding techniques and rates, and what the dough ought to look and feel like at various stages. All of that is awesome and a great start. But in relation to actually working up a dough it’s all ridiculously overelaborated and kind of beside the point. There are some things you want to mix together in rough rates, proportions and timings. There’s a way they should look and feel. You do stuff until you get that look and feel. What stuff you do exactly depends on what it felt like when you did that other thing a second ago. Maybe you fold, maybe you stretch, maybe you pull, maybe you push. And if you do that, and trust the process and set up the yeast to do its thing and don’t try to impose your will on it, you end up with delicious bread. If you don’t, you post frantic questions on discussion boards about why you didn’t get a crown or why your crumb is too dense or whatever.

    Teaching is the same, except in this case the recipe is the syllabus. So when colleagues think they’ve communicated what their class is by sharing their syllabus, I just hang my head.

  19. Two thumbs up for the great Conrad Veidt as Orlac. Veidt also played Cesare the somnambulist in Weine’s classic The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Later Veidt would play Major Strasser in Casablanca. Though successfully creepy and moody in old-school German expressionist style, the movie could use more pace. Either that, or the hands of the editor should have been more ruthless while wielding the scissors. But the big question for Orlac is this: does the will rule the hands? My hands want to reveal the movie’s answer, but my will…

  20. Vind! Vind! Don’t forget Veidt as the evil Jafar in THIEF OF BAGHDAD.

  21. Thanks for the recommendation; I’ve now reserved my library’s copy of the 1940 Bagdad movie starring Veidt. This morning I found myself thinking more about Orlac. Like piano playing and tennis and baking, acting is a body art. That’s especially true in silent films, where everything has to be done with movement, gesture, expression. Is it a stretch to give Orlac a self-reflexive interpretation? Veidt the body artist is placed in the hands of the screenwriter and the director. Theirs are murderers’ hands, forcing the artist to do their bidding, grafting onto him a fictional persona that is not his own. They’ve killed Veidt and replaced him with Orlac!

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