Direct Perception in Sports

This is a simple introductory article on a much larger and more complex topic. We will address the principles of this concept that underlies diverse approaches in sport. By the end of the reading, you should understand what direct perception is in sports and how it affects the training process.

What perception is and how it can be direct or indirect

Let’s define perception as simply the act of making sense of information received by the sensory system. When looking at an object, our retina receives light reflected from these objects in a certain pattern, which makes us understand the characteristics of these objects. This perception is used to obtain information about the object and consequently facilitate any motor action in relation to it. For instance, we can perceive shape, texture, and speed (if moving) of objects.

The classic theories believe that this information received from the environment has no direct meaning and must be processed by the brain through mental representations, based mainly on memory. For example, to catch an object in the air, the perception of speed is fundamental information that will allow the performer to effectively catch the object. Therefore, the brain would be able to discern this speed based on the subject’s experience with the task; that is, the information received is still processed by the brain, therefore, indirect.

However, a more contemporary approach, developed by Gibson (1979), states that the environment provides sufficient information for perception without the need for complex mental processing based on memory and/or experience. To better understand this concept, let’s imagine the same example of receiving a ball. When an object is thrown toward us, the image of that object on the retina gets bigger as the object gets closer. Therefore, the rate of expansion of the object in the retina (object gets bigger within the visual field) would be enough to judge the speed of the ball directly.

What is the application of this concept in sports?

The main application of direct perception in sport is that it makes no sense to develop a mental mechanism to improve perception in sport, which is, in fact, a practice and belief very common in sports. I will list some examples of common practices that don’t make sense if you believe in using direct perception to control sport action.

-Using non-realist LEDS to improve reaction time.

-Trying to automatize a movement to be used in another task with different perceptual information. For instance, hanging a volleyball and hitting it to develop the mechanics of hitting, when in the real task, the ball is moving (and therefore giving you information to regulate the movement).

-Using videos to develop sport perception (the info in a video is impoverished, 2D, passive, reduced in size, the athlete is out of context).

-Cone dribbling drills (basketball, soccer, etc.).

In general, for those who believe in direct perception, the valuable information in the environment should not be altered because that information serves as the basis for performing actions. In fact, the exercises should allow the player to explore the movement solutions and get more attuned to that specifying information (but this is subject to another article).

There is good evidence supporting that we use direct perception to control movements. In the next articles, we will explore more WHY we should take the direct perception approach instead of the traditional, old, and boring one.

Stay tuned and do not let ANYONE fool you!


Gibson, J. J. (1979). The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception. Taylor & Francis.

Leave a Reply