This study demonstrates that just watching sports is not enough to develop the ability to anticipate what your opponent will do -- it takes playing.
What we still don’t know, though, is how and under what conditions the athlete brain learns anticipation. Many hours of basketball practice may rewire brain pathways specifically for the mental demands of basketball. But are the number of practice hours all that count for this rewiring to occur? Or is it more a matter of what they focus on during practice? The expertise literature suggests that it is both how you practice and how much you practice, yet there is little to no brain-based evidence for how to optimize learning an athletic skill.
Another question is: after years of practice in a fast-paced sport like basketball or tennis, would an elite athlete acquire the ability to respond faster to anything in their environment? Does sport, in other words, sharpen the mind? Different studies have come to different conclusions. However, recent research by myself and colleagues at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, published in Applied Cognitive Psychology, compiled all the results from a variety of studies conducted over the years by scientists around the world. We found that, overall, elite athletes did show faster response times in tasks outside the context of athletics.
Similarly, a recent study by Leila Overney and colleagues at the Brain Mind Institute in Lausanne, Switzerland, showed that tennis athletes had greater precision in detecting differences in the speed of dots expanding toward them and showed faster visual perception than tri-athletes and non-athletes. At the same time, the same study showed that although tennis players were more accurate at finding a tennis ball in tennis snap-shots, they were no more accurate at finding the tennis ball in sport scenes unrelated to tennis. This study points out that some general mental abilities may be gained from sport training, while others may be sport-specific.
In our analysis we also found athletes have an advantage in what is known as “changing the breadth of visual attention.” Visual attention is the ability to focus on what is currently relevant to whatever you are doing (whether it be one or multiple things) while ignoring distractions. Breadth of attention refers to how many things and how much of the environment you are paying attention to at any one time. For example, a wide breadth of attention is necessary for driving in a busy roadway where there are cross-walks with bold pedestrians jumping out at any moment compounded with bike lanes, merging traffic, potential stop-lights, and maybe even your GPS companion directing you where to go. Think downtown Chicago at rush-hour. Now imagine you find yourself lost and while at a stop-light you decide to really “focus” on the map on your GPS module. You tune out the radio, any yapping passengers, all street sounds and sights, and direct tunnel vision to the GPS screen.
Shifting the breadth of attention is essential in sports. A basketball player dribbling down the court must focus on the ball, their teammates, and their opponents, while filtering out the crowd. This requires broad breadth of attention. Free-throw time ensues and now they must tunnel into their pre-shot routine, the ball, and the basket.
So the next time you're watching your favorite athlete and you ask yourself “how do they do it?” - remember their athletic grace is rooted in as much their mind as their body. Somewhere where the two meet, years of practice and hard work have created a brain sculpted for their sport and perhaps beyond.
Are you a scientist? Have you recently read a peer-reviewed paper that you want to write about? Then contact Mind Matters co-editor Gareth Cook, a Pulitzer prize–winning journalist at the Boston Globe, where he edits the Sunday Ideas section. He can be reached at garethideas AT gmail.com