Tennis players’ performance may affect how they perceive ball speed and net height


When athletes are having a good game they often talk about things moving in slow motion. A study out of Purdue University finds that altered perceptions may be somewhat universal and tied to performance.

The study, published recently in the journal Perception, tried out various scenarios on tennis players and on people who played a version of the old-school video game Pong. In the tennis experiment 36 male and female tennis students at various levels were tested on their perception of ball speed.

The participants were asked to hit balls from an automatic ball feeder set at slower and faster speeds and at various spins. When the players hit the ball in-bounds they perceived it to be moving slower, and when they hit the ball out of bounds they judged it to be moving faster.


Players were also asked about their perception of the net height. The worse the player was at returning the ball, the higher the net was perceived, and vice versa.

“In other studies, when the person performs better, like at softball, they perceive the ball to be bigger,” said study co-author Mila Sugovic in a news release. “This is the first finding where we are showing that something looks smaller or lower, and it matters in this case because the net is something the person is trying to avoid. Viewing it as smaller or lower turned out to be a good thing.”

In the Pong experiment, 14 students played a version of the game in which a “ball” is sent back and forth across a screen with “paddles.” During the test the paddle sizes changed. When the paddle was larger, making the ball easier to block, players thought the ball was moving more slowly.

As an aside, researchers noted that some participants were so young they had never heard of Pong. Ouch.

“Most people consider perception just to be about optical information in the eye, so the same optical information should look the same,” said co-author Jessica K. Witt in the news release. “What we are finding instead is that what you see relates to your abilities. This explains moment-to-moment performance. It is not just about your overall skill but how you are able to wield those skills, so to speak.”