CogniFit's Science blog: Sport Advantage: Skills And Brains

Sport Advantage: Skills And Brains

We can all agree that professional sportsmen are better at their particular sport than common people. The question remains to know if this because of intense practice or are they simply born with better skills? Or is there perhaps something else at work here?

Swiss and British researchers have been looking into this matter and have come up with some interesting insights. Any sport that involves moving objects (like tennis), requires three levels of response for timing:

First there is the basic visual reaction. You see the ball coming at you and you get out of the way.

Next, there has to be a perceptual reaction. You must identify what is coming at you and put it into some kind of context. That is the ball coming over the net and not something thrown by a zealous fan.

Last, there is a cognitive reaction and skills involved. You have identified the object, now what are you going to do with it? You must have some kind of plan worked out, like where you will hit the ball over the net to a place my opponent will not be able to reach.

The cognitive response is usually specific to the sport itself and is acquired through years and years of practice. But in order to reach the cognitive stage, professional athletes have superior visual and perceptual skills.

Research carried out at the Brain Mind Institute of Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne, conducted studies to see if expert tennis players have better visual perception skills than other athletes and non-tennis players.

When compared to non-athletes, tennis players showed significant advantages in speed discrimination and motion detection, but they were no better in other categories.

Then the tennis players were also compared to triathletes, to rule out whether the advantage was due to being in top physical shape. The triathletes are also in top physical form, but do not rely on visual skills as much as tennis players.

The results showed again that the tennis players were better at speed estimation and motion detection.

The next question was whether the tennis players were relying on their visual advantage or have their years of practice created some kind of internal cognitive model that can help them anticipate and predict the path of an object, so that they have that split second edge?

Studies with cats at the University of Bristol, have shown that even when trained cats’ vision was blocked, their neurons still fired exactly as it did when their vision was not blocked, and were able to accomplish the trained tasks. This shows that their brains had created an internal model to bridge the gap and provide a prediction of where an object was headed.

This suggests that tennis players do possess superior perceptual and visual skills, but their years of practice have also created an even faster internal simulation of the ball’s flight that can help them anticipate and prepare for a successful return.

Practice does make perfect and the training of specific cognitive skills help!