Sporting Genius: Inside the Minds of Elite Athletes

Photo: Erik Drost via CC BY 2.0

Sporting excellence excites and inspires. Whether it is Serena Williams dominating women’s tennis, year after year, Cristiano Ronaldo splitting the defense with a perfectly timed goal-assist, or LeBron James faking a drive, pulling up and shooting the “dagger,” moments of sporting brilliance are at once captivating and mind-boggling. Our fascination with and enthusiasm for sports is deeply rooted, with historians tracing the origin of sports back to an early form of wrestling in Mongolia, which surfaced around 7000 B.C.

Since its advent, humans have pursued sporting excellence, embracing competition and striving to hone and refine their athletic skills. Part of what makes professional sport particularly engaging is that it represents the upper limits of human achievement: the fastest, most accurate, most skillful our species can be. As spectators, we mere mortals can only wonder how they do it.

Performing at elite levels requires athletes to execute feats of exceptional strength, speed, endurance, and agility. Undeniably, an athlete’s success is influenced by their physical capabilities. The likes of Tom Brady, Lionel Messi, and Ronda Rousey are not only faster, fitter, and stronger than the general public, they are faster, fitter, and stronger than most of their competitors. Yet a growing body of psychological research has revealed that athletes not only act or move differently than nonathletes, they think differently, too.

Dr. Jocelyn Faubert, psychophysicist and research chair of the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada at the University of Montreal, has investigated the superiority of professional athletes’ perceptual-cognitive abilities. In his study published in Nature’s Scientific Reports, Faubert investigated the ability of professional athletes to learn complex and dynamic visual scenes, when given no contextual or background information.

One group of test subjects included professional soccer, ice hockey, and rugby players. Their performances were compared to those of amateur athletes and nonathletes. Initially, participants were each presented with an arrangement of eight spheres, four of which were briefly highlighted. For the next eight seconds, all eight spheres were continuously rearranged. Participants were then asked to identify the four initially highlighted spheres.

Faubert found that professional athletes performed exceedingly well on this task. They were able to begin the task with the dots moving at a faster rate than they moved for the other participants, and, importantly, the learning curve for professional athletes was much steeper than it was for amateur athletes and nonathletes. Interestingly, the amateur athletes managed to learn the task faster than nonathletes, suggesting that these refined perceptual and attentional abilities might develop as a result of sporting experience.

Faubert emphasizes, “To achieve high levels on this task, one requires exquisite selective, dynamic, distributed, and sustained attention skills for brief yet intense periods.” Athletes need to be able to track and remember relevant information, in a fast and dynamic context, often under severe time and psychological pressure. In sports such as tennis, baseball, or cricket, athletes usually have less than half a second to respond to the ball once it is in play, leaving no time for slow and deliberative thinking or planning. Elite athletes, the study found, appear to be able to hyperfocus for short periods of time, which results in extraordinary learning functions. Psychological capacities of this kind are likely to underpin sporting brilliance.

Evidence of the extraordinary attentional and perceptual capabilities of athletes has been corroborated by neuroimaging data, suggesting that there is also something special in the brains of elite athletes. Working with expert basketball players, Dr. Ana Maria Abreu and colleagues from the Social Neuroscience Lab, at the Santa Lucia Foundation in Rome, used functional MRI to explore the brain activity associated with players’ predictions of the outcome of free throws.

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