As a tennis fan, I marvel at Roger Federer's ability to gracefully execute some of the most difficult shots I've ever seen. Other sports have their greats: Lebron James on the basketball court, Michael Phelps in the pool and Lance Armstrong on the road. These are just a few of the athletes that continually wow us with their agility and uncanny power and strength. We know them for what they can do from the neck down. But what about their minds?
Over the last few decades science has started to look inside the mind of the athlete. What they have found is a brain not only finely tuned for the demands of their particular sport, but one that may also carry a mental advantage to situations beyond the sports field. This research also provides a unique context for studying novel and important questions about the human mind, such as how the mind and body work together to rewire brain circuits over years of practice. With increasingly sophisticated brain imaging techniques, we can also start to actually see what the brain is capable of at the highest level of physical and mental expertise. In turn we can see how the mind of elite athletes from distinct sports may compare to expert musicians, dancers, artists, yoga masters, or highly skilled video gamers. All this leads to a better understanding of just how flexible our brains are, and perhaps why we excel at some activities and not others.
For a long time, research on the athlete's mind focused on studying the athlete in the context of their sport. For example, we know that elite athletes are faster and more accurate at remembering and later recalling meaningful play formations from their own sport. They are also quicker and more efficient at searching a visual scene containing sport-specific information, especially when the target is something relevant to their sport, such as soccer players searching for the ball in a realistic soccer scene.
Research has also shown that expert athletes are better at anticipating the actions of their opponents and the consequences of those actions, based on sport-specific contextual information. For instance, an elite cricket player need only see the pitcher's preparatory arm movements before the ball is released to judge where the ball will bounce and its trajectory into the hitting zone, while non-experts are more likely to look at both relevant and irrelevant visual aspects of the pitch.
A research group in Italy recently investigated this same phenomenon in basketball. They found that elite players could predict the outcome of the free-throw earlier and more accurately than a group of expert viewers (e.g., journalists and coaches) and novices, by using cues from the shooter's hand movements at ball release. Before the ball even left the shooter's hand, only 486 ms after the shot motion started, expert athletes could predict success with greater than 30 percent accuracy, while expert watchers and novices were only at about 10 percent accuracy. At the critical time of ball release (781 ms after the start of the shot) experts were about 75 percent accurate while expert watchers and novices hovered around 40 percent. Even more fascinating, they found that what made the difference for elite players was the excitability of the brain area that would control their shooting hand. It’s as if the expert brain was, subconsciously, imagining taking the shot themselves and the moment when the shot left their finger tips was the “aha moment,” the best moment for predicting if the shot would drop.