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Understanding the mind of the elite athlete

Can sports sharpen the body and mind?



iStock/Ana Abejon

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.

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

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