Athletes' minds excel at motion tracking

Ray Lewis (52) of the Baltimore Ravens covers Wes Welker (83) in a file photo. Photo by Greg Fiume/Getty Images

What made Wayne Gretzky a hockey legend or Ronaldo a soccer star may have had more to do with brains than brawn. Professional athletes process complex visual scenes faster than other people, a new study finds.

"For decades, people have been looking at what it is that makes [athletes] so magic on the field," study author Jocelyn Faubert of the University of Montreal told LiveScience. "It can't be just physical," he said, "there's something about their brains."

To probe the mystery, Faubert and colleagues developed a technique for assessing and improving people's ability to process an action scene. They tested 102 professional athletes in a complex 3D motion-tracking task, including 51 English Premier League soccer players, 21 National Hockey League players and 30 French Top 14 Rugby League players. They also tested 173 elite amateur athletes, including 136 college basketball players from the NCAA and 37 individuals from a European Olympic training center, as well as 33 non-athlete university students.

Speeding spheres

The task, based on a test known as the 3D-MOT procedure, works like this: A number of colored spheres are shown floating in 3D space. Four of the spheres flash a different color briefly, then blend back in with the other spheres for a period of eight seconds. The viewer must keep track of the four that changed color, and identify them after the spheres stop moving. If the viewer makes errors, the spheres slow down; if he or she is accurate, the spheres speed up.

The professional athletes performed the task at a higher speed than the elite amateur athletes and non-athletes, and improved at it much more quickly as sessions progressed, results showed. The elite amateurs and non-athletes performed at similar speeds to start with, but the elite amateurs also rapidly improved their speed over the non-athletes.

"The results show that there's a big learning effect at the beginning, then it starts to plateau, but regardless, [the task] could distinguish between professional athletes, elite athletes and non-athletes," sports scientist Jay Hoffman of the University of Central Florida, who was not involved in the research, told LiveScience. The results confirm what Hoffman has been finding in his own research using the same system.

What sets athletes apart

An ability to learn to process complex, dynamic visual scenes may be what sets skilled athletes apart from others, the study suggests. But is this an innate ability, or one that's acquired? "That's the big question," said Faubert, who suspects it's a combination of both. "You need the predisposition to get to the top, but you need the [training] because it makes you become an expert," he said.

The biological basis of this mental advantage remains unclear, but a part of the brain that processes social cues and motion of living things, called the superior temporal sulcus, has been found to be thicker in athletes. [Top 10 Mysteries of the Mind]

Training with the motion-tracking task has been shown to benefit the elderly, too. It hones skills that are important not only for sports, but for everyday activities such as driving or crossing busy streets, the researchers say.

The findings were reported today (Jan. 31) in the journal Scientific Reports.

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