Takehiro Iwatsuki and kinesiology major Kierra Irwin work together on Iwatsuki's research regarding motor skills.

Autonomy in Athletics: Good Choice!

Takehiro Iwatsuki, assistant professor of kinesiology, studies whether or not choice influences motor skill performance
By: Therese Boyd

Every sports fan has seen an athlete “choke”—in other words, fail to live up to performance expectation during a competition. Someone drops a ball. Or passes the ball to the wrong player. Or blows a putt he has made millions of times before. The internet is full of those tales of woe. What makes this happen? Was this a mental mistake? Or a physical failure? How can an athlete prevent this from happening? One of Penn State Altoona’s newest faculty members, Takehiro Iwatsuki, assistant professor of kinesiology, is focusing on research to answer those questions.

Iwatsuki came to the United States from Aichi, Japan, with the goal of getting his Ph.D. First, though, he had to learn English. While he was managing that, he earned a master’s degree in psychology from Springfield College in Massachusetts. His athletic accomplishments playing tennis in Japan also paid off in the move. During college he had competed in Japan’s National College Tournament, placing “best of 32 in doubles and best of 64 in singles,” he says modestly, “not professional level,” but it certainly meant he could be the graduate assistant tennis coach—eventually the head tennis coach—at Springfield.

For his next move, Iwatsuki got what he came for—a Ph.D. in kinesiology from the University of Las Vegas–Nevada. Then it was back east to Penn State Altoona, where in addition to teaching both kinesiology courses and tennis, he is continuing his research begun at UNLV, studying “the factors that influence motor skills—how we effectively learn motor skills and how we successfully perform motor skills,” he says. He is specifically looking at “factors influencing performance, for example, under stressful situations.”

Autonomy—allowing people to make some of the choices that go into an act—may have an influence on performance. Iwatsuki’s previous work has shown that choice enhances motor performance. In his current study, participants are divided into two groups who putt a golf ball on artificial turf. “One group decides the color of the golf ball, the other group has it assigned by the researcher,” he explains. That may sound like a minor decision but, Iwatsuki says, “choosing some aspect of practice conditions actually helps us learn skills.” So, he asks, “when pressure is on, if you let people decide, does that influence their performance?”

Participants are informed beforehand that their movements will be recorded with a video camera so they can be studied closely. Iwatsuki says, “This method has consistently shown to increase pressure on performance and I am interested in whether choice enhances performance or not when it counts.” While the research is not yet completed, and so the question has not yet been answered, Iwatsuki thinks we might perform better “because people don’t like being forced. If the choice is somehow taken away from us, we often show negative consequences. I suspect people who get to choose perform more effectively.”

Continuing his research will tell Iwatsuki what he wants to know but that will take time; “we need to collect at least 20 participants in each group, for a total of 40 participants, to collect enough data,” he says. Along with his research and teaching, he will continue to write articles on the subject (most recently for the Journal of Sports Sciences). He is also thinking further into the future and outside sports as he asks: “For surgeons, does getting to choose their own instruments improve their performance and effectively learn surgical skills?” The question may already be on its way to being answered, with something as simple as a golf-ball putt.

Takehiro Iwatsuki and kinesiology major Kierra Irwin work together on Iwatsuki's research regarding motor skills.

Takehiro Iwatsuki and kinesiology major Kierra Irwin work together on Iwatsuki's research regarding motor skills.

Credit: Marissa Carney