Jocks and Bookworms

Here’s a surprise: professional athletes are good at following moving objects. 

In the jocks-versus-nerds world of cognitive function, those long hours practicing on the field or on the ice puts athletes one step ahead of the average college student. Instead of learning from textbooks, the athletes appear to be improving their brains through by learning physical skills.

Besides providing fodder for the rivalry between the two social groups, this new research has the potential to help people with attention problems, such as the elderly and children with ADHD. 

The Scientific Playing Field

The Université de Montréal 's School of Optometry tested English Premier League soccer players, NHL hockey players, France's Top 14 club rugby players, and  talented amateur athletes against a group of “bookworms”: college students who don’t play sports. 

The researchers examined 102 professional athletes, 173 amateur athletes playing in the NCAA or at a European Olympic training center, and 33 non-athlete university students. Each person was tested using 3D-multiple object tracking (3D-MOT) 15 times. During each test, participants were asked to describe a series of simulated objects moving through three dimensional space. 

The simulations were neutral, so they weren’t tailored to the athletes’ particular sports. They included activities like driving a car. The evaluations were based on what scientists believe are critical elements of viewing complex scenes: the distribution of attention between a number of moving targets amongst distracters, a large field of vision, the maximum speed of objects that one is able to follow, and the ability to perceive depth. 

“Although the context had nothing to do with any specific sport, we found that professional athletes were able to process the visual scenes much better than amateur athletes, who were in turn better than the students,” Jocelyn Faubert, director of the Visual Psychophysics and Perception Laboratory at the Université de Montréal, who also developed the 3D-MOT, said in a press release. “It would appear that athletes are able to hyper-focus their attention to enhance learning, which is key to their abilities.” 

What’s Going on Inside Those Brains?

Researchers found that the professional athletes were much better at learning to track fast moving objects than members of the other groups, although all three groups improved their scores over the course of the 15 training sessions.

Still, researchers say their work isn’t done; the results reveal a chicken-and-egg conundrum. 

“Clearly, mental processing and learning skills are key to the excellent performance of the professional athletes. However, it is unclear whether this superior learning ability is unique to professional athletes, and moreover whether these are innate skills that led them to be selected by these teams, or whether these skills have been acquired through extensive training,” Faubert said.

Though they performed well on these cognitive tests, previous research has shown that professional athletes—in football and other contact sports—are at a higher risk of developing depression and dementia later in their lives as the result of repeated concussions. 

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