Graduating from Texas Tech in 2014 with a Bachelor of Science in Animal Science, Samantha Huffman, a polo player and PhD candidate, sought to learn more about the sport of polo through the lens of academia. Developing “Spot the Ball: A Study of Situation Awareness in Athletes,” Huffman hopes to give more academic attention to the sport she loves. She also played intercollegiate polo for Texas Tech Polo Club (2011-2014) and worked for the Southern Methodist University (SMU) Polo Club in Kaufman, Texas, from 2016 to 2019. Learn more about the results of the study below and her next upcoming study.

Field Awareness, or the more formally known situation awareness, is “knowing what is going on around you.” For polo players, field awareness allows a player to make good plays and score goals while keeping themselves, fellow players, and the ponies safe. In a broader sense, athletes of all sports use situation awareness in a similar fashion. It has been suggested by researchers and sports practitioners alike that experience in a particular sport provides high-level athletes with heightened situation awareness.

Situation awareness is defined as the perception of environmental cues, comprehension of their meaning, and projection (prediction) of the future state of the environment. Projection skills, or predicting how events will unfold, is a sign of expertise in a sport. Psychologists and sports researchers have argued that situation awareness is a combination of cognitive skills such as attention, visual search behaviors, and anticipation that ultimately leads to decision-making. As a cognitive psychologist and polo player, Huffman was interested in how polo players are able to gain and use situation awareness during a game.

Spot the Ball Example.

Participants were asked to place a red dot where they thought the ball would be.

Huffman and her research team developed a static image “Spot the Ball” game that targeted polo and soccer players’ prediction abilities. They presented polo and soccer players, plus control participants without experience, with several polo and soccer images where the ball had been digitally removed. Participants viewed the images and clicked where they believed the missing ball to be. The goal of this game was to identify what environmental features aid in sports prediction. The images were separated into categories based on the sport (polo or soccer), the image-athlete’s gaze type (whether their gaze was on or off the ball), and the image grouping (whether a single player or a group of players were visible in the image).

Overall, the results showed that polo players and soccer players were more accurate than the control group. All participants were more accurate when the image-athlete’s gaze was on the ball, and when there were a group of players visible in the image. For polo images specifically, polo players were more accurate than soccer players and controls when the gaze was off the ball, but not when the gaze was on the ball. This suggests that gaze orientation is a highly important cue in sports prediction, but also that polo players do not solely rely on gaze orientation for their predictions. In soccer images, soccer players were overall more accurate than polo players and controls in almost all conditions. Soccer players and controls had similar accuracies in images that showed a single player with their gaze on the ball, suggesting some level of soccer familiarity in the control group.

Tonkawa's Sapo Caset focusing his gaze on the ball. ©David Lominska

Tonkawa’s Sapo Caset focusing his gaze on the ball. ©David Lominska

While the results suggest that gaze orientation is important in aiding sports prediction, Huffman and her research team also determined that polo players used other cues in polo images when the gaze was off the ball. It is arguable that during a game, players rely on more noticeable information, such as mallet angle and player positioning on the field, to find the ball. For the next study, Huffman will investigate how players are able to use mallet positioning to predict the location of the missing ball. They have a set of images with various parts of the mallet removed. Participants will view the images and click on the screen where they think the ball is located.

Polo is under-represented in many scientific and academic fields. There are significant gaps in academic knowledge surrounding polo, particularly from a psychology standpoint. Huffman is fortunate in her position as a PhD researcher and polo player to be able to fill in some of those gaps. By taking part in this study, you will personally help to shine a research spotlight on the sport of polo. The “Mallet Positioning” test takes approximately 15 minutes.

If you are interested in participating in this new study, please click the link below. This new study takes approximately 15 minutes to complete.TAKE THE TEST NOW

For more information about the project, please do not hesitate to contact a member of the research team.

Principle Investigator: Samantha Huffman
Department of Psychology
Nottingham Trent University
Nottingham, United Kingdom

Supervisor: Dr. Andrew Mackenzie
Department of Psychology
Nottingham Trent University
Nottingham, United Kingdom



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