Plenty of practice and empty heads – Part 1: The game as information.

Let me introduce David Stiff who played 450+ games in the NBL between 1992 and 2008 for a variety of teams three of which won championships while he was with them. He won six championships altogether. He was an NBL All Star in 1997. With an honours degree in psychology, and a big-picture outlook, David went on to work in player well-being at Collingwood Football Club. David is a parent at Merri Creek PS, where our kids go, and is involved with Fitzroy JFC. I have enjoyed getting to know David over recent years and always get caught in interesting discussions with him. Welcome to the almanac site David.



…the game as information…


The game is not Santa Claus – it doesn’t reward you for being nice, nor does it punish you for being bad.  Instead, it is a flow of a constellation of information that is present for all, but absorbed by few.  In this regard, competence is a hierarchy and so, as ones’ competence grows – finer and richer detail and information emerges.


For example, as a basketballer, I would play at the back of a full court press and intercept passes, or at the least, to position myself so as to slow the ball movement of my opponents by being in a tactically sound defensive position.  The ability to predict the path of the ball is critical in performing this role – and I became proficient at it.  How?


A key feature in my ability to do this was by watching the eyes of whomever had the ball – because for the most part, players tended to look at where they were going to move the ball.  Therefore the information I relied on was the eye-gaze behaviour of my opponents.


As an aside, the study of eye-gaze behaviour is extensive in sports and performance psychology, and has included a variety of sports (i.e. basketball, cricket, tennis, boxing…).


To illustrate further, I had particular difficulty establishing the most likely trajectory of the ball whenever competing against a guard (the most dominant ball-handler) who was cross-eyed. In these instances, eye gaze information strategies were of little use because I couldn’t tell where the cross-eyed athlete was looking. I don’t mean this to denigrate anyone, merely to isolate the example that impoverished information in my environment, limited my ability and opportunity to predict where the ball was most likely going to be. The game is information.


The narrative of research into expertise broadly identifies that developing competence is related to automating skills (hence the need for repetition) so that the execution of any skill is efficient and requires little cognitive demand (i.e. brain power).  This then frees up ones’ attentional resources (i.e. brainpower) so that the athlete is able to attend more of the information present in the game.


An example from daily life (pre google-maps) may be useful here.  Have you ever driven home only to wonder upon reflection how you got there because you don’t really remember the drive?  Getting home is highly automated (i.e. requiring little cognitive effort) so you have more brainpower to chat, sing, think, eat, text…


Conversely, when driving somewhere for the first time, you may find the need to turn down the radio, or ask passengers to be quiet because you need to concentrate.  This is an example of information overload (i.e. the radio, kids, passenger chatter is information in the environment) and the brain needs to limit this incoming information so it can focus on finding the correct address.


So if the game is information, it presupposes that having maximal cognitive resources (i.e. brainpower) is advantageous for optimal performance.  This is why the athletic performances we admire so much from our favourite athletes, often comes from plenty of practice and empty heads.


Read Part 2 here

Read Part 3 here





About David Stiff

retrenched athlete, retired catholic, amateur philosopher and cynical optimist :)


  1. Interesting stuff. “Empty heads” had me thinking about what I regard as “intuitive players”. My local example is Jeremy McGovern who seems to play like he is in the school yard outmarking his mates. Rarely spoils, and struggles when he goes forward precisely because he has to “think” about his running patterns. His disposal is either brilliant or awful (“McClangers”) because he is always looking to be creative and rarely takes safe options. Simpson seems to take the attitude that overreaching the negatives would destroy the positives. Same with Liam Ryan. By contrast Willie Rioli seems highly coachable and is used in more tactical ways to fit INTO a game plan. The game plan works AROUND JMc and LR.
    On practice – my passion is golf and there seems to be more theory about constantly varying practice. Driver, 5 iron, wedge. Constant alternation as in play. Traditionally we hit 20 of each to “groove” it. The parallel I see is with goal kicking in AFL. Players that I see nail every one in warm up, but struggle with the pressure/technique of a set shot in games.
    Goal kicking practice in front of team mates with the group running laps if you miss too many? Something that simulates a match situation pressure.
    Would be interested in your thoughts. Great to have such diverse knowledge and experience coming into the Almanac community. Welcome.

  2. Welcome, David. Always my favourite Devil. Impressively clear and succinct writing, thanks for sharing your experience.

  3. Mathilde de Hauteclocque says

    Really enjoyed this David. Welcome.

    I’ve just started a Masters in Information Studies so the ‘information’ filter you’ve applied is of interest! I was fascinated to read last week about the processes to test the eye movement patterns of online readers in labs, to observe when and how they through information, at what point they move to skipping or skimming, if and how information architecture – the layout or flow of info – affects this, what happens to concentration when info accumulates too quickly – the overload. I can absolutely see this happening on a field. I think it’s part of what makes the poetry for me, ’cause I too get caught up in the watchers watching, predicting who has seen the play and how they will react. It becomes a kind of layered, rhythmic process that can be quite mesmerising. And the players who ‘read the play’ are often the most elegant – those players who get to decide late, who have the time and space of a Brian Lara.

    Look forward to many more observations.

  4. Yvette Wroby says

    Welcome David. You had me at the ‘watching the eyes’ and I now realise every StKilda footy player this year may need glasses! You are at close range in basketball. Does this hold for footy and sports where there is distance between?

    Now I will be watching the watching.

  5. Really interesting stuff, David.

  6. Thanks for your comments. It’s always nice to get feedback from others who are open to different perspectives – it’s great information that let’s me know I’m not the only one (or at the least, that I’m not the only deluded sucker).


    With regards to the information present in different types of sport, I think it’s ultimately all the same. The information present in golf (for example) extends beyond temperature and topography. Internal information such as physical biofeedback (i.e. backswing mechanics) or mental appraisals (i.e. negative self talk) can be overwhelming. Closed skills in open sports (i.e. penalty shooting, free-throw shooting) also operate in this way. These examples are commonly cited as being “mental” endeavours – perhaps because the information battle occurs between the ears.

    Because whilst it’s true that experts learn and then rely on critically important information to respond appropriately, it is equally true that they need to filter out intrusive and irrelevant information. Much of our brain structure operates in this spirit of inhibition – to shut out or limit information.

    So it’s not all physical and it’s not all mental, and there can be too much or not enough information. Perhaps Goldilocks was on to something.

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