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APSU's Kevin Harris investigates how to create expert teams

CLARKSVILLE, Tenn. – On a warm, May afternoon in 2012, Australian tennis star Samuel Groth stunned spectators at the Busan Open when he delivered a 163 mph serve—the fastest serve in the history of that sport. A grainy YouTube video from that day shows Groth’s opponent, Belarusian Uladzimir Ignatik, flailing in his unsuccessful attempt to connect with the ball. Ignatik looks like an amateur facing off against a seasoned pro, but that’s an unfair analogy. Even at slower speeds, returning a professional tennis serve is one of the most difficult feats in all of sports. The ability to hit back a high-speed serve is often what separates the novices from the stars, but scientists recently uncovered a trick that is helping scores of young athletes with their game. The advice? Don’t look at the ball.

“Recent research using eye tracking showed that the top tennis players in the world look at the lower torso of their opponent to successfully return a serve,” Dr. Kevin Harris, Austin Peay State University associate professor of psychology, said.

When a group of tennis players was trained to look at the lower torso of their opponent, mimicking what stars of the sport do unconsciously, they successfully returned more serves than a control group that focused on the ball. This is the type of discovery that fascinates Harris. Throughout his career, the APSU professor has looked for the hidden secrets that allow experts to perform at the highest levels. While a graduate student at Florida State University, Harris studied under renowned psychologist K. Anders Ericsson, who’s work in this area was highlighted by Malcolm Gladwell in his best-selling 2008 book, “Outliers: The Story of Success.”

Ericcsson, as Gladwell points out, discovered that “world-class” musicians, such as Mozart, aren’t innately gifted, they simply “worked much, much harder.” Ericcson’s research helped transform the way people think of talented individuals—musicians, tennis players—and now Harris is expanding upon that work in the field of deliberate practice to discover how teams of people can become expert teams.

This summer, Harris’s scholarly article, “Team Deliberate Practice in Medicine and Related Domains: A Consideration of the Issues,” appeared in the scientific journal, “Advances in Health Sciences Education,” and now researchers across the globe are discussing his findings. The article was added to the Clinical Human Factors Group website and recently promoted by Martin Bromiley, a champion of improving healthcare at the system level. Bromiley’s own case is featured in Matthew Syed’s new book, “Black Box Thinking: The Surprising Truth About Success.” Syed is also the best-selling author of “Bounce: Mozart, Federer, Picasso, Beckham and the Science of Success.” Following the article’s publication, Harris was also asked to contribute a chapter on his research to the prestigious “Oxford Handbook of Expertise.”

“Dr. Harris is building a national reputation as extending Dr. Ericcson’s work to the medical field,” Dr. David Denton, dean of the APSU College of Behavioral and Health Sciences, said.

In his article, Harris points out that poor teamwork in medical situations, such as in an operating room, “is a key cause of preventable errors in healthcare.”

“If there are seven members on a team, what can be done where everybody is on the same page?” Harris said. “We identified what would be important to allow that to develop. What are the obstacles?”

His research led him to develop three guiding principals that teams can follow to allow its members to function, collectively, at the highest level. These principals include “prolonged engagement in increasingly difficult deliberate practice,” rehearsing activities that are proven to enhance performance, and developing a training system that has “clear, objective, and quantifiable measures of performance and improvements in it.” His paper also encourages teams to practice actionable ways to overcome obstacles inherent in team performance, such as getting interrupted in their tasks, so they’ll be able to handle similar situations in the future, and for members to undergo assertiveness training so that lower ranked members of a team feel confident in providing important information to the team’s leaders.

Harris’ work focuses on team deliberate practice in medicine, but it also offers a framework for anyone working on a team. Shortly after the paper’s publication, Harris discussed its principles with an individual in Oklahoma, interested in training teams of oil field workers.

His hope is that his research, which took several years to develop, will help build expert teams, ultimately lowering the number of medical errors.

“That’s one of the things when you wake up in the morning or go to bed at night, you’re like, ‘wow this is real,’” he said. “At one point it was just things I was thinking about. But we know from individual deliberate practice research that this saves lives.”

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