Mind & Brain, Studies

Professional athletes learn faster than University students

There’s a common stereotype that depicts athletes as being grunts that are all brawn and no brain. In reality, the truth couldn’t be farther. Athletes, the good ones at least, seemingly posses an above average intelligence, and a recent study by cognitive scientists at University of Montreal adds further weight to this statement. In the study professional and amateur athletes bested university students in cognitive tests. The findings may help unravel the mechanisms that allow some athletes to be so much better than  everyone else at what they do.

“What we found is spectacular, the difference,” said University of Montreal researcher Joceyln Faubert in an interview Thursday for CBC News. “It’s not just little.”

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“We all have stereotypes about athletes: ‘They can’t even say two words straight, they’re not very good at expressing themselves’ and so on,'” Faubert said. “But their brain is busy doing something else.”

The researchers asked study participants – including professional NHL hockey players and English Premier League soccer players, elite amateur athletes involved in team or combat sports, drawn from the NCAA American University sports program and a European Olympic training centre and lastly  non-athlete University of Montreal students – to engage in a cognitive test that involved paying attention to and tracking fast-moving objects, something the researchers describe as being akin to using similar skills as driving or crossing a busy street.

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None of the study participants had ever seen this kind of test before, so everybody started from a clean slate in learning the skills required to score high.  Their performance was recorded over 15 learning sessions, at end of which the results came in – no less than staggering.

Professional athletes both started better and improved more quickly than the other two group. The amateur athletes started off performing at a similar level to the university students, but they improved more quickly. There were no recorded performance differences between males and females. So, apparently the university students, although they were enrolled in a higher education establishment, scored lower at a cognitive test than athletes which supposedly use their brains less.

The 3D multiple object tracking test. Eight spheres are presented, after a while four of them are highlighted then turn back to normal color. All the spheres then change their position and the participants needs to correctly identify all four spheres. If you get it wrong, the velocity of the spheres is decreased or heightened if you’re correct in your tries.

Although the test might look like it was centered around athletes, since it implied tracking moving objects, the researchers claim it’s just as good at assessing academic potential as well since it involves one key factor in learning – attention. Athletes’ superior ability to focus and pay attention means “if they concentrated on something else, they’d probably be good at that, too,” Faubert believes.

Faubert and his colleagues involved in the study now intended to see whether the three-dimensional multiple-object tracking task can improve people’s ability to pay attention and learn, something people with low attention span, like those suffering from ADHD or the elderly, could benefit from.

Findings were reported in the journal Scientific Reports.