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another sum exlusive

Issue 17 - Jan 2005

Tennis - Advantage Maths!

Tim Henman contemplates his next service According to U.K. researchers. Dr Konrad Körding and Professor Daniel Wolpert from University College London Tennis players unwittingly use maths to estimate the speed and accuracy of their opponent's return .

Top tennis players know intuitively how fast and hard a ball is likely to approach and where it is likely to go.

Like most sportspeople, tennis players use knowledge gained from watching their opponents as well as what they learn from playing against them.

The combination of these types of knowledge can be analysed by Bayesian statistics, the researchers said, a type of statistics that is revolutionising statistics worldwide. Bayesian statistics can be applied to everything from sports to market predictions.

In the study, six men and four women each had over 1000 attempts to accurately gauge the position of a randomly moving visual target, a dot on a computer screen. The researchers used a variety of tricks, such as blurring, to affect how well study participants pointed to it.

They found that the participants used prior knowledge of the pattern of tricks and combined that with the visual clues they received on how close they were to the target. The combination helped them point in the right direction. Statistics applied to the data quantified how the participants estimated the target's position.

This is exactly what tennis players are doing even if they don't know it, the researchers said.

Associate Professor Michael Smith, an Australian statistics expert from the University of Sydney , said the research was novel as the statistics produced quantifiable results. The researchers estimated the range within which a ball's speed lay, or the area where it was likely to be returned.

The statistics involved multiplying the prior information a player had, such as an evaluation of their opponent's tendencies, with information the players gained during the match, called the likelihood, Smith explained.

Smith said the research would equally apply to other sports, and also have applications in everything from marketing to neuroscience.

"The applications from this are huge. The interesting thing here is it's the first time it's been used in a sophisticated way for motor sensory experience," Smith said.


Tennis players on the ball with maths

Heather Catchpole ABC Science Online


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Prime Record

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