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Benjamin Franks is from Kent. He joined Oxford Brookes as a research student in September 2016 and the title of his thesis is ‘A Perceptual Approach to Decision-Making: The Quiet-Eye as an insight into perception-action couplings in Elite Goalkeepers’.
I completed my undergraduate degree in Sport, Coaching and Physical Education at Oxford Brookes. I became so involved in the area of study and with the lecturers on my course that the next logical thing to do was to stay on as a postgraduate student.
The new John Henry Brookes Building and the clear investment in the University facilities demonstrated how serious the University is, as well as the lecturers in the Sport, Coaching and Physical Education department that have specialist knowledge in research and application in my area of study. The lecturers, notably Will Roberts and Daniel Newcombe, provided me with excellent opportunities throughout my undergraduate programme and I wanted to continue pursuing an academic career.
I was able to settle into the new environment comfortably; the introductory provisions for research students is excellent, as well as the continued training courses throughout the year. I’ve come across a few challenges with my research, specifically data collection, but I’ve been fortunate to have a supervisory team with a great breadth and depth of knowledge.
The eyes are the key sensory organ for the brain and provide powerful binocular visuals by picking up reflections of light from the perceptual field. In order to have a constant feedback of images, human and non-human animals must constantly move their line of sight to process images to the brain. In order to act in certain ways, the eye must lock on to certain ‘targets’ in order to extract the key information that may inform whether to act or not. This process of fixing on certain sources of optical energy is known as the Quiet Eye.
The ‘Quiet Eye’ (QE) is a visual search tool that focuses on certain locations in the visual field, and in sport, these fixations occur prior to the start of a movement by an athlete. The QE is discussed as a mechanism in the eye that directs decision-making and distinguishes experts from novices (Vickers, 1996; Panchuk and Vickers, 2006; Reinhoff et al., 2015). Research has highlighted that experts are able to specify a source of information in the visual field and fixate on this longer compared to their novice counterparts who often sporadically look at multiple different areas (Vickers, 1996; Savelsbergh, 2002).
My study seeks to explore how athletes are able to make decisions by using the visual information (the optic information created within eye direction) available to them during that task, with a focus on the Quiet Eye phenomenon.
Sport training typically uses a range of specific and non-specific environments, which are designed to replicate game scenarios. The level to which athletes are permitted to have free decisions over their actions (affordances) or are deliberately limited (constraints) is an aspect which is consistently manipulated in training, in order to best develop athletic performance, both in individual and group settings.
The study attempts to understand how changing constraints in different training environments alters the visual information that guides behaviour. Some notable work has been undertaken by Savelsbergh (2002 and 2005) within the field of goalkeeping in football, which begins to open the debate as to determine perception and visual search strategies as a key determinant of expertise in sport.
The limited range of QE studies has left large gaps within the research (Davids & Araujo, 2016), creating room for myth and ideology to ‘fill the voids’ that current research is unable to answer (Beek and Michaels, 1995). As Panchuk and Vickers (2006) discussed, sporting actions and movements under time and space pressure are often characterized by uncertainty, for which goalkeepers have reduced time to act and process decisions.
Within the Goalkeeping field, QE studies have focused on the penalty kick and identifying what visual information aids the goalkeepers to save the ball (Franks and Harvey, 1997; Williams and Elliott, 1999; Williams, 2000; Savelsbergh, 2005; Dicks et al, 2010; Piras and Vickers, 2010). Whilst it is highly important to understand the role of gaze in penalty kicks, these particular actions are a minority for goalkeepers. Just 91 kicks were taken in the English Premier League in the 2015/2016 season from a total of 760 games (just 11.97% of games). Therefore, the ability to determine the role of QE in more dynamic situations is important to developing both a better understanding of decision making processes in sport, and in determining the most optimal training scenarios, to best develop performance.
I really enjoy the autonomy involved in running your own research project in an area where I feel I can make a key difference, and is something that I enjoy studying. The biggest challenges that I have faced is dealing with elite sporting environments and the access constraints involved when trying to incorporate research into a club running an elite programme with significant financial involvements. It has been difficult to overcome these issues, constant networking and re-planning has taken place to ensure that the research has a rich and diverse enough sample, without encroaching on training programmes.
The research training at Oxford Brookes has been highly supportive. As a distance student, I have to rely on fairly infrequent visits to Oxford. Thankfully the number of training opportunities, guest lecture series and access to support staff has filled me with confidence and I am able to engage effectively with the training programmes offered.
My future plans are to stay in research and lecturing within the areas of Sport Coaching research, Environment Design and Perception/Cognition in sport performance. Within time, I would like to move onto a PhD, expanding on my Masters research within different sporting contexts, and the impact on novice and developmental performers. I’ve been fortunate enough to be given a platform to deliver on the undergraduate course as an Associate Lecturer which has been a great experience and something I would be very keen to move into on a permanent basis.