The Myth of ‘Just do it’: Thought and Effort in Expert Action preface

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Striking before Seeing

Athletic performance, like philosophy, is not typically a life-or-death matter, though great athletes sometimes see it as such; unlike philosophy, though, which typically allows ample time for thought, many forms of athletics do not allow for a chance to pause one’s actions and consider what to do. But is there really ‘no time to think’ in such situations?

There is a line of reasoning, loosely based on neurological data, according to which thought, or at least conscious thought, would arise too late for it to be relevant to certain types of athletic expert performance. Of course, when you are running a marathon, there is time to think; even for elite runners, the event lasts over an hour. But can a baseball player think when the ball is coming at ninety-five miles per hour, or, with the best pitchers, sometimes even faster? The expert athlete, in such a situation, it is sometimes argued, cannot consciously control her movements, as she has to move before consciousness can kick in. The philosopher Jeffrey Gray (2004) uses grand-slam tennis as an example. He argues that in grand-slam tennis, the speed of the ball after a serve is so fast and the distance it needs to travel so short that a player must strike it back before she consciously sees the ball leave the server’s racket (p. 7-8). According to Gray, “consciously [the receiver] neither sees nor feels his arm move before the stroke is completed” (p. 8). The brain, says Gray, of course receives the information about the serve, but given that it is commonly estimated to take about 250 milliseconds to become conscious of an event after it has happened, this awareness cannot be relevant to the return. Gray concludes that the idea that “conscious awareness should guide immediate behavioral reaction to them is—on the experimental evidence—impossible” (p. 9).

The results Gray cites, however, are more controversial than he makes them out to be. First, there is the problem of determining just when a person becomes conscious of an event. Reportability is one test, and this is the test that some interpret as leading to the 250 milliseconds requirement, but it is difficult to tell how long it takes to report an event after it has become conscious. Beyond this, there is the problem of determining just how fast human reaction time is in order to judge whether there could be time to react after the onset of consciousness. Attempts to measure human reaction time in controlled laboratory settings do not capture the pressure and thrill of real-life situations (which, for an athlete, may almost feel like a life-or-death situation) and thus might not be truly indicative of what an athlete can do. Furthermore, athletes do talk about not just consciously guiding their movements, but having the time, even in extremely fast actions, to make judgments and misjudgments. Here is Nadal’s (2011) description:

[E]very time you line up to hit a shot, you have to make a split-second judgment as to the trajectory and speed of the ball and then make a split-second decision as to how, how hard, and where you must try and hit the shot back. And you have to do that over and over, often fifty times in a game, fifteen times in twenty seconds. (p. 6)
Pete Sampras, emphasizes the importance of thought when he needed to move from grinder to attacker:

I had to learn to start thinking differently, and more. A grinder can lay back, waiting for a mistake, or temp you to end points too quickly. An attacker has to think a little more. Flat serve or kicker? Charge the net, or set up a ground stroke winner? Is my opponent reading my serving pattern or shot selection? As a serve-and-volleyer, you attack; as a grinder you counterattack. The basic difference between attacking and defending is that the former requires a plan of attack and the latter calls for reaction and good defense. (2008: p. 30)

Athletes also sometimes comment on how they experience the subjective lengthening of time. As Sampras puts it:
[A]t big moments, everything slows down a little--and if it doesn't, you have to make it slow down.  That's one of the first and most important things you need to know if you want to close out matches. You need to be deliberate, because it takes great-self control to close matches. (p. 47)
Racing car driver Jackie Stewart explains the optimal race like this:
At one hundred and ninety-five MPH you should still have a very clear vision, almost in slow motion, of going through that corner—so that you have time to brake, time to line the car up, time to recognize the amount of drift, and then you’ve hit the apex, given it a bit of a tweak, hit the exit and are out at a hundred and seventy-three MPH. Now, the good driver will do this in a calculated way.83
This seems to be just the opposite of just-do-it, and stands in stark contrast to Hubert Dreyfus’s claim that “the expert driver, generally without any attention…. knows how to perform the action without calculating” (Dreyfus & Dreyfus 1991: p. 116). Such conclusions are based on the phenomenology of everyday driving, not expert race-car driving.

If the above claims are to be believed, thinking, conceptualizing, and judging seem to occur in athletic endeavors event at lightning-fast speeds. Thought, as Hobbes pointed out, is quick, and, indeed, the upper limits of how fast it can travel have been on the rise.84

In asserting that thought occurs at these outrageously fast speeds, are such players guilty of “intellectualism,” or what Charles Seiwert describes as “the vice of overstating the role of intellect in experience and action, of seeing reason (or inferences, or concepts) where they are not” (2013: p. 194). My methodological principle, as explained in the introduction, says that first-person reports should be taken as defeasible evidence for their truth. And perhaps, one might say, such reports are defeated because athletes only say these things in order to make what they do seem like an intellectual endeavor. Moreover, the advocates of just-do-it will cite examples of experts who claim to act without thinking. Or perhaps one might just be skeptical about first-person access to one’s thought processes in general. One cannot discount such points, however, as one can also explain away the comments of “not thinking,”—for example, if a tennis player is interviewed right after a grand slam, he might be too exhausted to explain his thinking process and might say instead “I just did it”. As there seems no reason to believe that we never have insight into our thought process (and, I might add, that in the battle over the anecdotes, it seems that there are many more on my side), so far, at least, I do not see the scale tipping in favor of the just-do-it position.

Another consideration that might tell against the idea that there is no time to think in such situations is that – as Gray himself points out – top players anticipate the ball’s trajectory well before it leaves the server’s racket. Such anticipation has been studied in many sports,85 and although no one knows exactly how it occurs, Aglioti et al. (2008) hypothesize that the human mirror system, which is thought by some to produce an internal representation of movement upon seeing movement in another, may allow athletes to anticipate the outcomes of even very fast actions in basketball players. And presumably the same would apply to tennis. According to Gray, however, this still does not allow time for consciousness to play a role in the game. And to support this view, he cites the science journalist John McCrone (2000), who tells us that top players do not claim to get their clues about the ball’s trajectory prior to the time the ball leaves the racket, but rather seem to be conscious of the shots as they happen (J. Gray 2004: p. 8). This, however, falls short of showing that “on the experimental evidence,” conscious guidance of such actions is “impossible” (ibid.: p. 9). Moreover, it is not clear that McCrone captures what at least some of the best players claim to notice. For example, Pete Sampras explains how when he would disguise his serve, other players would comment that they were not receiving the typical clues they rely on to determine where the ball is going: during lessons, he explains, his coach would have him “toss the ball in the air, and then he would call out where he wanted me to hit it, and with which spin, if any . . . later, players would say that they had trouble reading where my serve was going, or what kind of ball movement it had” (2008: p. 17). This suggests that players are at some level “reading” the body language prior to the serve.

Of course, it may be that all of the “reading” happens automatically as an unconscious process, and that such players are merely reasoning that, given that they are not able to return his serve, they must be missing something. However, if they have a sense of missing something, it would seem that there is at least some conscious awareness of the bodily cues. If there is no conscious awareness of, say, a room suddenly turning pitch dark, you would not have a sense that you are missing anything (or at least, you wouldn’t have this sense until you bumped into the wall). And similarly, if the players are not consciously aware of the bodily cues prior to the ball leaving the racket, they would not have a sense that they are not picking up these cues (or at least, they wouldn’t have this sense until they repeatedly fail to return the serve).

Moreover, in at least some domains, athletes do explicitly talk about reading such clues. In baseball, Charley Metro describes how it is done:

The good hitters get their tip-off from the pitchers. And there are many, many ways that a pitcher tips off his pitches. He grips it like that [fingers straight over top of ball]; there's your fastball. When he throws a curveball, he chokes the ball [wedges it between his thumb and forefinger, gripping it on the side so it sticks out]. Now see how much white of the ball shows on a fastball? And how much more white shows on a curveball? . . . Another thing is when they bring the ball into the glove, when they come in with a flat wrist like that, that'll be a fastball. When they turn their wrist like that, it's a breaking pitch. There are many, many ways, and the good hitters pick out these things. . . . facial expressions . . . human habits and characteristics will tell. (quoted by Carlson, 2004)
Such anticipation seems to occur in other expert domains as well. The violinist Arnold Steinhardt, for example refers to it in describing how he was able to play together with the other members of his quartet. In chamber music, he tells us,
[Y]ou had to learn how to be both soloist and accompanist, often slipping quickly from one role to the other. Most often, the solo line ruled, with the others dutifully following it. But if, when accompanist, I merely listened to the solo line, my violin voice would tend to lag behind. We learned to watch carefully the motions of the solo voice’s fingers of both hands (and any other body language), as an advance warning system for the sound that was to come. (2000: p. 23)

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