Monday, May 07, 2007

17 out of 20 (a.k.a. 'calling any psychologists)

Here's a very very interesting informal experiment in aptitude, concentration and execution.

For about 5 years now, i've been playing basketball at least once a week with other players. Often, though, when thinking through a particularly difficult business or academic problem, i can think best alone on a basketball court with just a ball, a basket, and my thoughts. I am quite sure that this is due to the slight distraction that it provides, clearing the way for new perspectives to emerge on the problem at hand - similar to the way that focusing on an ocean vista can help in thinking about a weightly personal decision.

Over the last 5 years, i've played a game with myself during these thinking sessions to see how many foul shots in a row i can shoot. Since i've played a lot of sports in my life, this is more a mental exercise than a physical one. This is to say that, for the sake of analyzing yesterday's results of this experiment, the physical part of it can be almost completely removed where foul shots are concerned. They are not physically difficult, but instead require mental attentiveness.

Here is the part which is extremely interesting:

Over the last 5 years, i can recount anecdotally that hitting 5 foul shots in a row has occurred probably in the neighborhood of %25 of the time. This is to say that 1/4 of the times that i've played this game with myself, i've been able to hit 5 out of 5. Probably another %10 of the time i've been able to hit 10 out of 10. About once a year, i'm able to hit 20 out of 20. These statistics are probably pretty consistent with anyone who did not play organized basketball (and therefore did not do freethrow drills every day at practice) - who would have a higher percentage than i do.

Yesterday, to increase the challenge, i took the first foul shot with my eyes closed, expecting decreased results. This is to say that i stood at the line, prepared for the shot looking at the hoop, closed my eyes and took the shot. I hit the first 3 in a row. Then the next 4 (7 in a row). Then the next 2 (9 in a row). Then i missed a shot (9 out of 10). Deciding that this was worth testing, i kept shooting. When all was said and done, i had hit 17 out of 20 of the shots, with my eyes closed - something i'd rarely been able to do in 5 years with my eyes open. Due to time constraints, i then left, baffled. This was one of the best shooting percentages in 5 years - with my eyes closed. Hitting one of these shots could have been a fluke. But it is difficult to think that hitting this many in a row is a chance event.

My observations of the event:

  • i found myself preparing more thoroughly for the shot because i knew i had to if i wanted to have a prayer of putting each one through the hoop
  • on the shots i missed, i could actually tell how the shot was going to miss (left, right, short), even before opening my eyes, by feeling how the ball left my hand, and visualizing its flight
  • i was forced to completely visualize the shot before taking it
  • shooting the ball felt completely different with my eyes closed

Other observations:

  • anecdotally, i remember playing some of my best volleyball games in college and while trying to make the AVP tour (Association of Volleyball Professionals) when sick or slightly injured

My preliminary hypotheses:

  • for a person who has done a task frequently over a long period of time (but who knows the task pretty well), shutting down their primary skill can force them to shift to a secondary - but perhaps more powerful skill in accomplishing a task - occasionally with better results. In this case i had to rely on visualization much more heavily than in the past. In the past, a sickness or slight injury forced me to rely more on knowledge than strength to try and win a game.
  • latent, underutilized skills can lie dormant and unused in people until radical change forces their use
  • people don't automatically use their best skill or set of skills when accomplishing a task

What do you all think? Assuming yesterday's events were not a fluke, what are some possible causes? What does it mean for us as HCI Designers, business people, teachers, etc. as we design tools and environments that should enable employees, students and users to achieve the highest results?

Should we intentionally shake up people's routines in order to test/develop other skills?

* Note: i will be trying the experiment again later this week and posting the results.


Kevin Makice said...

I noted something similar while in a bout of writer's block, back in the pen and pad days. I hit 19 of 20 shots into the trash bin throwing them over my shoulder. Granted, the basket was immediately behind me, next to a corner wall, but still. Unfortunately, it didn't help my writing that day.

Anonymous said...

There's a lot of great stuff in this blog. And your, multiple, hypotheses sound testable in lots of ways. The distraction factor as a tool for making breakthroughs is especially interesting. There are some psychological studies on this kind of thing that show for easy problems, best not to be distracted. But for harder problems, distraction is actually a good thing. Check out

and search for the word 'distraction'.

With respect to blinding yourself for the shot, maybe it's thinking more about the shot (better preperation) or maybe its better motor stability (not mutually exclusive). In my own basket shooting (very low sample size) I notice that my main issue is instability in my wrists, arms, fingertips. It's as if my eyes are trying to push the ball into the hoop and my arms are less activated. Closing my eyes, however, may increase my hand/arm sensory awareness, and maybe stabilize these components more.


Christian Briggs said...

Kevin, thanks for the levitical (levity, not leviticus) contribution to the discussion. In your experiment the pen and paper thing is the biggest confounder. Paper changes everything..

Christian Briggs said...

Thomas, i agree with the motor stability idea. This could be related to the fact that, even with my eyes closed, i could still generally tell how the shot missed when it did (left, right, short, etc), based on how it felt leaving my hands.

In a related set of anecdotes (though i'm not entirely sure of the correlation), i have noticed for years that when i've gone a week or so without lifting weights, fine motor skills such as shooting a basketball or setting a volleyball (neither of which require much actual strength) start to decline pretty sharply.

There are of course many possible reasons for this - some of them spuriously correlated - but it's interesting nonetheless.

Thanks for the link, too. I'll definitely check it out. One thing i'm currently interested in is organizational distraction - what happens to a group of people when the system is perturbed - or, analogous to the basket shooting - part of an organization is disabled.