While it is obvious that professional athletes exceed the physical condition of the average person, to excel as an athlete extends far beyond just physical excellence. The distinction between exceptional players and average players lies primarily in the cognitive abilities underlying decision-making and execution. For all sports and activities, the body depends on the brain for controlling movements, decision-making, and reaction to external stimuli. Particularly in high-speed sports such as football, soccer, or hockey, the cognitive demands are much more taxing as there are many more components interfering with an athletes mental and physical capabilities. In a fast paced, constantly changing environment, these factors all contribute to the complex cognitive functioning ensued; thus, the athletic brain operates at accelerated speeds in various brain regions that provides them with superior performance as seen in professional or expert athletes. Neuroscientists have only recently begun to explore the neurological components that contribute to exceptional athletic performance; through studying the individual cognitive processes that underlie the elementary actions within sports games, scientists are able to further analyze the brain regions associated with particular athletic abilities.
Functional MRI studies have analyzed and identified specific brain regions that are associated with enhanced motor skills. The distinction between brain areas associated with greater blood flow varied between golfers of different skill level; Milton et al (2007), reported findings that suggest that professional-level motor skill is associated with greater activity in the superior parietal lobe, the dorsal lateral premotor area, and the occipital area. These areas are primary motor control areas that are involved in execution of body movement toward a visually perceived goal. In the study, fMRI scans determined the brain activity of novice compared to expert golfers as they prepared their swing before taking a shot. The results not only showed that professional golfers showed heightened activity in the primary motor control areas identified, but also showed that novel golfers showed increased activity in other brain regions that actually inhibited their motor skill ability.
Brain scans of novice golfers depicted dispersed activity among other brain regions, particularly in the posterior cingulate, the amygdala-forebrain complex, and the basal ganglia. The basal ganglia and limbic system are associated with emotion control, which contributes to the conscious awareness of individuals’ actions; thus, this awareness interferes with their cognitive processing devoted towards planning their shot. The enhanced ability of expert golfers partially lies in their ability to perform tasks with ease and reduced conscious interference associated with increased brain activity (Bascom, 2012).
Another crucial aspect of any sports game is the ability to react to external stimuli. Especially with fast-paced games, an athlete must be able to use previous information and experience to predict what is coming and prepare accordingly. Thus, expert athletes are better able to constantly read and adjust to new situations quicker, allowing more time to process and execute their actions. So as the brain of an athlete becomes more efficient through practice and experience, the underlying cognitive processes become easier and more automatic. It is evident that the mind of an adept athlete largely contributes to their physical performance and skill; physical and mental strength is what differentiates professional athletes from the rest of us.
Bascom, N. (2012). Brainy ballplayers: Elite athletes get their heads in the game. Science News, 181, 22-25.
Milton, J., Solodkin, A., Hluštík, P., & Small, S. L. (2007). The mind of expert motor performance is cool and focused. Neuroimage, 35(2), 804-813.