The Incredible Visual Skills of Cristiano Ronaldo


I have previously written about the importance of visual processing for athletic performance. I just came across a video demonstrating the unbelievable (I mean that literally) visual skills of a world class athlete, via the excellent Axon Sports blog. In the video, sports scientists test the visual processing of Christiano Ronaldo, one of the worlds best soccer players. (By the way, Ronaldo was a top contender for my world’s greatest athlete.)

The video focuses on two essential elements of sports vision: the skill to quickly gather relevant visual data to know what is going on, and the ability to interpret that data to predict what it likely to happen next. The video makes clear that the skill of top players in this regard have been developed to an absurd level.

Check this out, and if you only want to watch a little, skip to 9:30 in the vid.

Gimme a f***ing break. Did he just get lucky? Could he see in the dark? Does he have echolocation? Is it the hair gel? I don’t get it.

In case you didn’t watch the vid, here’s a brief summary with some of my own thoughts.

In the first segment, the scientists tried to get some insight into how Ronaldo gathers relevant visual information as he plays soccer. To do that, he was fitted with an eye tracking gadget. Then he was asked to engage in a game of keep away with Andy Anash, a less gifted player (by definition I suppose) who also wore some eye trackers. After the game, the scientists analyzed who was looking where as they executed their soccer skills.

They found that Ronaldo looked more to his opponent’s hips and the space around him, which allowed him to determine where his opponent could move and possible escape routes. By contrast, Anash spent more time looking at Ronald’s feet and the ball, which as you can see from the video, move so fast and magically that they are more likely to be hypnotic than informative. (Ronaldo would fake more than once per second - ridiculous.) So it seems that Ronaldo was better at gathering visual info that was relevant to his task.

In the second test, the scientists tried to measure Ronaldo’s ability to anticipate ball flight based on limited information.

In ball sports, you must move to the ball before it arrives. Not surprisingly, elite performers in ball sports demonstrate superior abilities to anticipate ball flight. For example, in baseball, you need to decide whether and where to swing well before the ball reaches the plate. Therefore your ability to make contact depends on predicting ball flight based on its initial trajectory and the body language of the pitcher. And the body language info is hugely important. When the pitcher’s body is hidden behind a screen, the hitter basically can’t hit a thing.

With this in mind, the scientists tested Ronaldo’s ability to anticipate ball flight on a corner kick. To do this, they had him try to strike a ball into the goal of after the lights had been turned off mid flight.

Watching Ronaldo’s performance in this regard really made me understand why I don’t score on corner kicks very often. And to be honest, I think he must have been able to see that ball at least a little bit. C’mon.

But I will confess that my own experience playing squash has convinced me that some players really have amazing skills of anticipation. When your opponent is reading you like a book it is really surprising. And very horrible as well. Here’s a squash video from a very recent tournament showing an awesome rally with two or three shots where the players move well before the ball is struck.

And some nice air guitar work from Ramy.