03. Performance

Do Pro Athletes Have Special Brains?

September 16, 2016

What differentiates an amateur athlete from an elite one? Is it their skill level? Or perhaps their drive and dedication? Well, research has revealed one reason for this major difference may lie in their brains. In fact, an athlete’s sports-related perceptual-cognitive expertise is a crucial element in top-level competitive sports!

Higher Number of Neurons

High-level athletes have a higher cortical thickness in a few areas of their brain in comparison to a non-athlete. In other words, they have a higher number of neurons! This is often used as an indication of cognitive ability in an individual. High-level athletes’ brains are, therefore, anatomically and functionally different from the average person. This difference enables them to perform better in complex and dynamic visual environments.

The Brain Areas

In what brain areas has a difference been noted? One is in the superior temporal sulcus (STS), which plays a particular role in socially relevant stimuli and biological motion perception. Biological motion perception involves the visual systems’ capacity to recognize complex human movements from a pattern of a few moving dots.

This is a very strong dynamic cue that can be used to avoid collision and anticipate opponents’ movements in sports. When elite hockey players need to decide whether they should continue to skate, pass or score, their unique abilities enable them to make a better-informed decision.

Photo Credit: Alan Levine under CC BY 2.0

Is their developed STS the result of their sports experience developed over their lifespan? Or is their STS thickness determined at birth? The truth is, it’s still undetermined whether their superb visual processing abilities are simply due to nature, nurture, or both. But, one of the reasons that this area is more developed, is due to their sports expertise.

Pros and their Learning Rate

Nevertheless, there is truly something special about the brains of professional athletes. Take for example Canadian NHL hockey star Wayne Gretzky. He wasn’t unusually fast or strong compared to other players in the league, but still managed to score more points than any other player in NHL history. The superior athletes are the ones that can truly read a play and anticipate it.

A study was conducted to investigate the learning rates of professional athletes in comparison to elite-amateur athletes and non-athletes. The three groups took a cognitive test that involved paying attention to and tracking fast-moving objects. The test taps into similar decision-making skills required when driving or crossing a busy street.

Photo Credit: Sam Valadi under CC BY 2.0

What is remarkable is that not only did the professionals start at higher speed value, but they were also able to learn at a much faster rate. In a nutshell, they were able to start off at a higher performance level and improve more quickly than the other two groups. These results definitely shatter the “dumb jock” stereotype.

Sure, pro athletes may not always sound highly intellectual in interviews, but maybe it’s because their brain is busy doing something else. Remember that the next time you see one who is unable to express him or herself!

Cover Photo: Akiwitz under CC BY-SA 2.0

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