Big Picture Soccor

Temporality and Sport

Time expands, then contracts, all in tune with the stirrings of the heart.”

– Haruki Murakami

Fighting against the boxer Vasiliy Lomachenko is often referred to as “entering the matrix” in reference to the famous scene in which time dilates to the extent that Neo is able to dodge bullets. After Messi hexed his whole defence, Espanyol manager Qique Sanchez Flores remarked that Messi “stops time.” Legend has it that Hockey great Wayne Gretzky saw the game in slow motion. Are these ideas simply the folklore of sport, or might they be touching on something deeper? Surely modern physics with its pure and mathematical space-time has no room for such fantasies. 

Cognitive scientists seem to have put the issue to bed in a study (Stetson, Fiesta, Eagleman, 2007) in which a device called a perceptual chronometer was utilized to determine the highest speed at which participants could still make out flashing numbers on a digital display. At a certain rate, the numbers could no longer be reported accurately. Using this set up, a maximum rate for each participant was determined. Next, the researchers strapped the device to the participant’s wrists, hoisted them 46 meters into the air and dropped them to their dea…into a net. The idea was that if time really dilates in intense or frightening events, (as people often report in car accidents) then the participants would be able to read the flashing numbers at a faster rate than they had on the ground. 

They found that, while participants did overestimate the time they were falling through the air, there was no improvement in the ability to read the numbers. They concluded that “the involvement of the amygdala in emotional memory may lead to dilated duration judgments retrospectively, due to a richer, and perhaps secondary encoding of the memories [17–20]. Upon later readout, such highly salient events may be erroneously interpreted to have spanned a greater period of time.” (Stetson et al, 2007). Time dilation, therefore, is an illusion that only exists in memory. 

All may not be as it seems, however. From an ecological or enactive point of view, it’s quite easy to point out the weakness of this experiment. If perception is understood to be for action, then the design of the study is fundamentally flawed. The information participants were instructed to attend to  (numbers on the screen) had no relevance for action. Take the paradigmatic time dilation example of the car accident. In a car accident perception and action remain tightly coupled. Both the driver and the passengers will attend to whatever information in the environment might allow them to maneuver the car and their bodies, respectively, out of harm’s way. The above study is analogous to expecting someone in a car accident to perceive the license plate number of the oncoming vehicle – with no relevance for action we have no reason to expect that it will be perceived in any extraordinary way.

Given the dominant legacy of Plato, Descarte, and Kant, we tend to think of space and time as objective properties of the world – the Cartesian grid into which events and objects are placed – space with its three dimensions, and time with three tenses. This way of looking at things has worked really well in physics and the natural sciences, but it’s not the only game in town. Gibson takes direct aim at Kant, and this dominant view, in the following passage.

Time and space are concepts, abstracted from the percepts of events and surfaces. They are not perceived, and they are not prerequisite to perceiving. They do not give meaning to percepts and they are not imposed by the mind on the deliverances of sense. Time and space are intellectual achievements, not perceptual categories. They are useful in the study of physics but not in the study of psychology. (Gibson, 1975)

Gibson is inverting the usual order of things here. Instead of our “subjective” experiences taking place within the “objective” framework of space and time, these ideas and frameworks are abstractions, or “intellectual achievements” – human creations. He goes on to say “Isaac Newton’s famous assertion that ‘absolute, true, and mathematical time, of itself and from its own nature, flows equably without relation to anything external’ was the postulate of a physicist trying to simplify his problems. It did simplify physics but that does not mean it will simplify ecology and psychology” (Gibson, 1975). 

If not this a priori container, then what might space and time be? Gibson raises his hand again: “A better metaphor would be to suggest, as already mentioned, that time is the ghost of events and that space is the ghost of surfaces” (Gibson, 1975). It might feel that Gibson is turning things upside down, but Tim Ingold points out that the dominant Platonic paradigm is, in fact, the “logic of inversion”, and Gibson, Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty, and others are merely restoring the events and objects to their rightful status as being ontologically prior to space and time which have been abstracted from them. 

Unshackled from Kant, Newton, and the Platonic tradition, Gibson is free to make this shocking observation. 

The seemingly innocent hypothesis that events are perceived has radical implications that are upsetting to orthodox psychology. Assuming that shorter events are nested within longer events, that nothing is instantaneous, and that sequences are apprehended, the usual distinction between perception and memory comes into question. For where is the borderline between perceiving and remembering? Does perceiving go backward in time? For seconds? For minutes? For hours? When do percepts stop and begin to be memories or, in another way of putting it, go into storage? The facts of memory are supposed to be well understood but these questions cannot be answered. Equally embarrassing questions can be asked about expectation” (Gibson, 1975).

In other words, when does the present become the past? As Gibson’s intellectual grandfather William James (through E.B. Holt) points out, the idea of a present as a razor’s edge dissolves the more we think about it. The present moment must exist in a greater than zero quantity, but if it does, then part of that quantity must have already passed, and part must not have arrived. We should accept, then, that the present moment and the three tenses of time are only a useful tool. We are completely caught up in a flow of change and persistence. Rhythms, oscillations, and cycles entraining each other at infinite scales. Just a moment ago it seemed that Newton’s time was the rigorous or “objective” one, but we can now clearly see that it requires us to imagine something which does not exist – a truly static snapshot of a frozen universe. 

What, then, is temporality? Merleau-Ponty says “the ambiguity of being in the world is translated by that of the body, and this understood through that of time” (Merleau-Ponty, 1945/2018). What the body and perceptual systems must deal with is a world that is not only moving, but moving at many nested levels of sequence. Smaller sequences of movement are nested within larger ones. Further, both the agent and environment are in motion. The information is not only in watching external motion, as through a keyhole, or only in the motion of the agent, but in the coordination between the two.  

Van Dijk and Withagen offer helpful clarification. “The agent resonates with the environment on multiple scales of motion: it opens up and spreads out its contact with the environment farther and farther as it develops its perceptual abilities” (Van Dijk & Withagen, 2016). This process creates what they call an ecological present which is “based on the motions of practical involvement” (Van Dijk & Withagen, 2016). They are in agreement with Gibson that “the feelings of past, present, and future are merged or, more exactly, the activity of perception is acknowledged to be retrospective and prospective. It is necessarily so, since perception is not confined to an instant” (Gibson, 1975).

By now you may be starting to sense the possibility that the legends of temporal wizardry might be more than fairytales. Gibson gives us more insight into what that might look like. “Perceiving gets wider and finer and longer and richer and fuller as the observer explores the environment. The full awareness of surfaces includes their layout, their substances, their events, and their affordances” (Gibson, 1979). As Van Dijk and Withagen suggest above, the richness of information available in the environment is inexhaustible. Different performers can therefore have different ecological presents. The more skillfully attuned the performer, the wider, finer, longer, and richer that present is. 

Take the famous experiment in which Christiano Ronaldo is able to finish crosses after the lights have been turned off. The temptation is to explain this uncanny ability by assuming that he has mentally represented the flight path of the ball. Understanding the potential richness of the ecological present, however, allows us to understand that his skillful attunement to the information in the movement of the kicker has created a “wider, finer, longer, and richer” present moment for him.


This simple thought example might help. You are on the street and the police approach you and ask if you saw where the man in the green jacket went. The richness of your answer will depend on what scale of motion you perceived. Consider the following possibilities: 

  1. You didn’t see the man at all and will have no idea where he is
  2. You glimpsed the man briefly, but didn’t see which way he was going. You know he is in the vicinity, but don’t know what direction he went.
  3. You saw him walking to your left and point the police in that direction.
  4. You saw that he was running to the left, and his trajectory was angled towards the left turn at an upcoming intersection. This gives additional information about how far he is likely to have gone, and where. 

In this scenario we don’t tend to think of a mental representation of the future. We think about how much information we picked up from the environment. Ronaldo’s ability to score in the dark is amazing, but consider how in your own environment you might be able to distinguish family members by the way their steps sound when walking up the stairs. In fact, the average person is very skillfully attuned to biological motion in general. Psychologist Gunnar Johansson showed that people can recognize biological movement just from briefly seeing something called a point light display (Johansson, 1973). Can you recognize these movements? 

What does this mean for temporality in sport? What happens when two agents compete against each other? If we understand the ecological present to be created by the scales of motion and affordances an agent resonates to (Van Dijk & Withagen, 2016), then an expert performer will experience something that is, as Gibson says above, wider, finer, longer and richer. It’s very reasonable to say that, when playing against competitors whose perception is not so enriched, this expert player would have something akin to time dilation, for all intents and purposes. 

 Hidden in Gibson’s promise of perception which is “wider, finer, longer, and richer”, we glimpse one of the central mysteries of temporality in sport. Rather than facing a trade-off between scope (wider, longer) and resolution (finer, richer) as we might expect, we see that it is possible to extend in both directions simultaneously, and this is what the greats have likely done. This points towards a holographic structure in which each part carries the information about the whole, and the whole carries information about each part (as Henri Bergson concluded). There is the potential to resonate to infinitesimal micro-scales of movements, and simultaneously see, in them, the history and culture of countless lives. 

I suspect that at the core of sport we encounter an assemblage of those same familiar aporias humans have been wrestling with for millennia. Sport inhabits Polanyi’s tacit dimension in which “we know more than we can tell” (Polanyi, 2009), and reminds us that the mystery of movement goes far deeper than our rational explanations will ever be able to reach. Temporality, being the descendant of motion, finds its richest expression not in the symbols of Newton or Einstein’s equations, but in our deepest human traditions such as music, dance, and sport.

“Our view of man will remain superficial so long as we fail to go back to that origin of silence, so long as we fail to find, beneath the chatter of words, the primordial silence, and as long as we do not describe the action which breaks this silence. the spoken word is a gesture, and its meaning, a world.” -Merleau-Ponty (Phenomenology of Perception)

(no matter how many times I watch this I still can’t believe it)


Johansson, G. (1973). Visual perception of biological motion and a model for its analysis. Perception & psychophysics, 14(2), 201-211.

Kirby, P. W. (2011). Boundless worlds: An anthropological approach to movement. New York: Berghahn Books.

Gibson, J. J. (1975). Events are Perceivable But Time Is Not. The Study of Time II, 295-301. doi:10.1007/978-3-642-50121-0_22

Gibson, J. J. (1979). The ecological approach to visual perception: classic edition. Psychology Press.

Merleau-Ponty, M. (2018). Phenomenology of Perception. Nevada: Franklin Classics.

Polanyi, M. (2009). The tacit dimension. University of Chicago press.

Stetson C, Fiesta MP, Eagleman DM (2007) Does Time Really Slow Down during a Frightening Event? PLoS ONE 2(12): e1295. doi:10.1371/ journal.pone.0001295

van Dijk, L., & Withagen, R. (2016). Temporalizing agency: Moving beyond on-and offline cognition. Theory & Psychology, 26(1), 5-26.

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