Why are elite sport players so much better at their game than you or I? A professional basketballer would probably make eight or nine free throws from every ten, while I’d be happy with five. Why the difference?
There are a variety of reasons. The pro has probably developed (or been born with) muscle areas which I rarely use. Also, he or she has learned, through intense practice, how to control these muscles very precisely. This is how a golfer can put the ball within a couple of metres of the flag from halfway down the fairway. Despite our instinctive notions to the contrary, this fine motor control does not originate from the muscles themselves, but is orchestrated by the brain – where, of course, all learning occurs.
So, apart from being able to effectively co-ordinate their finely tuned muscles, do the top athletes have any other advantages over the rest of us? A paper published today in Nature Neuroscience suggests that they do. Aglioti et al investigated the ability of elite basketball players to anticipate whether a shot was heading for the basket or not. It turned out that these athletes can not only perform this task significantly better than expert watchers (sports journalists and coaches) and lay persons, but that their muscles activated differently for shots going in or out of the hoop, even though they were just sitting still in a chair for the duration of the experiment. And it doesn’t take an expert to see that the ability to predict the future would boost your chances of the catching that next rebound.
Intriguingly, the elite athletes’ advantage seems to stem not from being better able to visualise the path of the ball through the air, but from a superior ability to read body movements before the ball has left the player’s hands. The task was to watch a video clip of people shooting baskets. The clips were cut short at varying times before the ball reached the basket. Unsurprisingly, seeing more of the clip improved all groups’ (players, expert watchers and novices) ability to guess whether the ball finished in or out of the basket. But for the clips that were cut just at or before the player in the video released the ball (781ms in the graph), the elite basketball players were getting it right 70% of the time, compared to about 40% for the other groups. Here’s a glimpse of the data for the curious:
It would be interesting to see if the same phenomenon was found in top sports people who play games where anticipation is not a key skill, like golf or swimming. If you are interested, I recommend reading the full paper, especially for more references. I’m not an expert on the topic, but this action-perception debate and the mirror system theory is really fascinating.
Salvatore M Aglioti, Paola Cesari, Michela Romani, Cosimo Urgesi (2008). Action anticipation and motor resonance in elite basketball players Nature Neuroscience, 11 (9), 1109-1116 DOI: 10.1038/nn.2182