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J Sports Sci Med. 2012 Jun 1;11(2):339-45. eCollection 2012.

The perceptual cognitive processes underpinning skilled performance in volleyball: evidence from eye-movements and verbal reports of thinking involving an in situ representative task.

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University of Porto, Faculty of Sport , Portugal.


An extensive body of work has focused on the processes underpinning perceptual-cognitive expertise. The majority of researchers have used film-based simulations to capture superior performance. We combined eye movement recording and verbal reports of thinking to explore the processes underpinning skilled performance in a complex, dynamic, and externally paced representative volleyball task involving in situ data collection. Altogether, 27 female volleyball players performed as centre backcourt defenders in simulated sessions while wearing an eye-tracking device. After each sequence, athletes were questioned concerning their perception of the situation. The visual search strategies employed by the highly-skilled players were more exploratory than those used by skilled players, involving more fixations to a greater number of locations. Highly-skilled participants spent more time fixating on functional spaces between two or more display areas, while the skilled participants fixated on the ball trajectory and specific players. Moreover, highly-skilled players generated more condition concepts with higher levels of sophistication than their skilled counterparts. Findings highlight the value of using representative task designs to capture performance in situ. Key pointsDecision-making in complex sports relies deeply on perceptual-cognitive expertise. In turn, the effect of expertise is highly dependent on the nature and complexity of the task.Nonetheless, most researchers use simple tasks in their research designs, risking not capturing performance in a meaningful way. We proposed to use a live action setting with a complex task design, representative of real world situations.We combined eye movement registration with collection of immediate retrospective verbal reports. Although the two data sets are not directly comparable, they may be used in a complementary manner, providing a deeper and fuller understanding of the processes underpinning superior performance.Highly-skilled players exhibited more exploratory visual search behaviors than their skilled counterparts, performing more fixations into more locations. They also attended more to functional spaces between two or more areas of the display. Furthermore, highly-skilled players produced more condition concepts and with superior level of sophistication, revealing a deeper and more meaningful attunement to the task constraints.


Perceptual expertise; in situ testing; thought processes; visual search behaviors


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