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Goal Posts Appear Smaller After Kicker Misses

Alabama's Mark Ingram (22) runs on a 14-yard touchdown as Auburn's Josh Bynes (17) and Sen Derrick Marks (94) defend during their NCAA college football game at Bryant-Denny Stadium in Tuscaloosa, Ala., Saturday, Nov. 29, 2008. Alabama, which is just one win away from a likely BCS birth, won 36-0. AP Photo/Dave Martin

In football, kicking a field goal can be a nail-biter for players and sports fans alike. Turns out, if a kicker is having a bad day, with several failed attempts, the target could seem even more elusive on his next chance to score, according to a new study.

"People trying to kick field goals will see a much smaller goal after unsuccessful attempts," said study researcher Jessica Witt, an assistant professor of psychological sciences at Purdue University in Indiana. "But those who kicked better judged the goal posts to be farther apart and the crossbar lower to the ground."

In the study, 23 non-football athletes attempted 10 field-goal kicks from the center of a football field at the 10-yard line. Overall, those who made more of their kicks perceived the goal to be about 22 percent bigger than their less successful counterparts, she said.

More specifically, participants who missed because they kicked the ball too wide judged the goal to be narrower, while those who kicked the ball too low perceived the crossbar of the goal as farther off the ground.

While the study sample was small, Witt thinks the same results would hold if the study were repeated with more participants. Such results, detailed in the current issue of the journal Perception, reveal how an action can bias an athlete's perception.

"Most people think of perception as just being about information received by the eye," Witt said. "If that were the case, then perceived size should not have changed because the optical information specifying the size of the goals posts is constant. This research shows that perception is about more than just the optical system."

Such a phenomenon, she says, could have helped our ancestors, as it has an evolutionary advantage.

"I think we scale the world to our own abilities," Witt told LiveScience. "And before you kicked you didn't really know what your abilities were going to be. But after you kicked you have a really good sense of your abilities and the world is scaled as such."

To put the football example in evolutionary terms, Witt suggests, "If you were hunting for food and you saw an animal as much larger, you might be encouraged to go for it because you'll get so much food from it." And if you were to snag the meal, you might continue to perceive such animals as large and worthy of hunting.

Witt's work follows her previous study on athletes and perception. In one, golfers who judged the hole as bigger got better scores on the course that day. And in a study of softball players, she found players with higher batting averages perceived the ball as larger than those with lower averages.

In the current football study, the players didn't show such a bias until after the successful or unsuccessful kicks. And so she is not sure whether the perception could affect future performance.

That's the next step.

"There are still a number of questions to answer about this work, including what role perception plays for professional athletes who practice the sport more than the average person," Witt said. "We would also like to know if there are ways, such as visualizing the target to be bigger, that can benefit athletes in their sport."

Witt's work was supported by the Department of Psychological Sciences and the College of Liberal Arts at Purdue.

Jeanna Bryner
Before becoming managing editor, Jeanna served as a reporter for Live Science and SPACE.com for about three years. Previously she was an assistant editor at Scholastic's Science World magazine. Jeanna has an English degree from Salisbury University, a Master's degree in biogeochemistry and environmental sciences from the University of Maryland, and a science journalism degree from New York University. Follow Jeanna on Google+.