Modern neuroscience and sports science is challenging the idea that performance is primarily about physical prowess. Instead, skillsets between the ears are proving to be defining traits of super-elite athletes. Let’s take a look at 5 of the key mental skills that make up a truly pro athlete.
Whether it’s cycling, running, tennis, soccer or basketball, most sports involved dynamic scenes where many things going on all around change rapidly. Often how these elements change is hard to predict. Being aware of the play as its happening involves maintaining focus on many things throughout the field of view, and all at the same time.
This is an extremely demanding cognitive skill that most people become quickly overwhelmed by. The result is that amateur athletes tend to collapse their field of view, especially when under pressure, or choose to only focus on one or two things, such as the ball or an immediate opponent. At the other end of the scale super-elite athletes seem to have a sixth sense of everything that’s happening, and at each moment the action is unfolding.
Reading the play as it happens is one thing, but what matters most is choosing what to do. Team sports in particular involve myriads of play options at any one time. The complex thing is that these quickly branch off into potentially hundreds of plays. Germany dominated the last FIFA World Cup with spectacular concatenations of passing, turning them into a playmaking machine that defeated Brazil 7:1.
Making the right decision at the right time involves predicting the future, as Wayne Gretzky famously said ‘A good hockey player plays where the puck is. A great hockey player plays where the puck is going to be.’ This requires holding in mind the current state of play and accurately imagining what will happen next, pushing working memory and executive functions to the limit. An example of supreme decision-making is a player like Lionel Messi, who can make game-changing passes at the drop of a hat.
Sports that involve anticipating an opponent’s next move rely on our ability to read human movement – a skill known as biological motion perception. Reading body language is not as simple as it seems, to be accurate athletes need to pay attention multiple key parts of the body at the same time.
Together these provide critical cues that, for example, can allow a top tennis player to predict serve direction even before the tennis ball is hit. Soccer star Ronaldo has demonstrated how powerful these cues can be by scoring goals in complete darkness, without even seeing the ball being kicked.
As athletes’ body parts are usually moving, reading body kinematics relies on multiple object tracking skill. Research has shown that athletes have a major advantage over non-athletes in their biological motion perception, showing that these mental abilities to be a defining trait of their performance.
Quick reactions are far more about the brain than muscular condition. For each reaction a stream of sensory information must be processed along with calculation of the best action-response, then execution of movement. Most reactions in sport are not simple ones like dodging an incoming object. Instead they are complex reactions, such as blocking an opponent with the ball attempting to make a pass, and so they involve skilled interpretations of the best play outcome.
This means processing a ton of information on the fly, and often under serious psychological pressure and physical fatigue. Neurons fire in frequencies called brainwaves, and to be ready to respond quickly, the brain must alert and firing at high frequencies associated with peak performance states.
In a ground-breaking study published on the homepage of www.Nature.com, hundreds of elite athletes from the NHL, EPL, Rugby and NCAA sports were tested to see how well they could adapt to NeuroTracker training. The results showed that top professional athletes had brains with a superior ability to adapt to new training, compared to lower level athletes or university students.
This heightened state of neuroplasticity in an athlete means they are a more efficient learning machine. It’s likely a key ingredient for success, improving responsiveness to training and competitions, and allowing athletes to adapt their mental skills to thrive throughout their career.
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