Study: Athletes Think Faster, More Accurately Than Non-Athletes

Results of a recent study indicate that athletes process information faster and more accurately than non-athletes.

Athlete Thinking

What's a spike? Could be a nail, could be a way to spice up a bowl of punch, but if you're a volleyball player, the answer is clear: A spike is a powerful shot blasted to the floor. A study published in the December issue of Brain Research found that the brains of experienced athletes responded differently to certain command words than those of novice athletes. Its findings might just help you learn to perform better on the court, field or pitch.

Researchers at the International School for Advanced Studies in Trieste, Italy, wanted to determine if level of expertise affects how the brain processes commands of action words. So they recruited 20 women, half of whom were professional volleyball players, and the other half who hadn't played the sport.

The subjects were presented with written statements of commands. Some could be possible, such as "go block," and others impossible, such as "do a forearm dig while leaping." The statements could be either positive ("do…XYZ") or negative ("don't do…XYZ.") The subjects were asked to respond whether the actions were possible or not by pressing a button indicating "yes" or "no," as researchers monitored their brain waves.

The result? Both groups had activity in their brains that implied they were visualizing the actions described. But the athletes were able to more quickly recognize what was possible versus what was impossible, visualizing what could be done while ignoring what didn't make sense. The novices, meanwhile, attempted to visualize everything—even things that could not be done.

The study also found that, when presented with positive, possible actions, experienced athletes processed the demands more quickly than novices. Scans showed that athletes showed stronger bonds between the portions of their brains that process information and those that cause action within the body.

The study's findings suggest that conceptual thinking depends to some extent on factors like the subject's experience and expertise. So if you've been hooping for years, your brain will be better able to react appropriately when coach tells you to "perform a pick and roll." An author of the study says that positive self-talk really can influence performance.

"Our data showed that the mental simulation of performing a movement is better (you are more accurate) and faster (as measured by response times in milliseconds) when actions are presented as positive commands rather than negative commands," says Barbara Tomasino, one of the researchers. "Thus we can argue that the presentation of positive commands primes you to better imagine (preparing) that action."

So the next time you step up to the free-throw line, instead of thinking "don't miss," think "make this shot." It might just work.

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