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What the NFL Can Learn from Science

Just in time for the Superbowl! - The Superbowl is coming up soon, and baseball science may give NFL players some valuable tips on how to catch a ball while on the run, something that's essential in football. When the quarterback throws to the receiver, he has to aim for where he WILL BE when the ball arrives and the receiver has to know where to position himself in order to catch it.

This all comes down to the question of how the brain uses visual information to guide action. In the 1954 World Series, thousands of fans (and more recently, hundreds of thousands of YouTube viewers) saw Willie Mays turn his back on a fly ball, race to the center field fence and catch the ball over his shoulder, seemingly a precise prediction of a fly ball's path that led his team to victory. Researcher William Warren says, "The three existing theories all predict the same thing: successful catches with very similar behavior. We realized that we could pull them apart by using virtual reality (that's "science speak" for using a computer) to create physically impossible fly ball trajectories."

Warren said his results support the idea that the ball players do not necessarily predict a ball's landing point based on the first part of its flight: "Rather than predicting the landing point, the fielder might continuously track the visual motion of the ball, letting it lead him to the right place at the right time."

And unlike NFL players, baseball players get extra clues. As his co-researcher Philip Fink says, "Fielders might also use information such as the batter's swing or the sound of the bat hitting the ball to help guide their movements."

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Art credit: Dreamstime.com

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