Elite athletes such as Gold Coast Suns star Gary Ablett are better at interpreting visual information. Photo: Sebastian Costanzo
Professional athletes learn quicker than university students to unravel complex visual data, says a study that challenges the age-old brains-vs-brawn cliche.
Jocks are brainy too - in fact they are smarter in some dynamic contexts, concludes the paper in the journal Nature Scientific Reports.
‘‘They appear to be able to hyper-focus for short periods of time resulting in extraordinary learning functions,’’ wrote study author Jocelyn Faubert from the University of Montreal School of Optometry.
‘‘Professional athletes as a group have extraordinary skills for rapidly learning unpredictable, complex dynamic visual scenes.’’
For the study, Professor Faubert put 102 professional sportsmen, 173 amateur athletes, and 33 non-sporty university students through a 3-D visual test. The subjects were about 23 years old on average.
The athletes included 51 English Premier League footballers, 21 National Hockey League ice hockey players and 30 French Top 14 rugby stars.
Test participants had to track multiple moving objects on a screen with their eyes. They were not required to employ any motor skills.
The test was repeated 15 times over a minimum of five days.
The top athletes performed best from the word go, and had by far the steepest learning curve as the experiment progressed, wrote Professor Faubert.
The amateurs started with similar results to the students in the first test, but then drew ahead in terms of learning speed.
‘‘This demonstrates that a distinguishing factor explaining the capacities of professional athletes is their ability to learn how to process complex dynamic visual scenes,’’ said the paper.
‘‘This gives us an insight as to what is so special about the elite athletes’ mental abilities, which allows them to express great prowess in action.’’
Professor Faubert said he had been ‘‘very’’ surprised by the findings because previous attempts to explain athletes’ superior abilities through standard cognitive tests had failed.
The test had also unexpectedly shown that the athletes’ quick-learning ability was not limited to their particular expertise.
The test was subject-neutral and had no sports context so that athletes would not have the benefit of familiarity.
‘‘The pros are much superior than scholars in our highly complex mental task. In other words, they are smarter (at) learning how to interpret the real world in action,’’ Professor Faubert said.
The skills tested would also be used in dynamic, multi-tasking scenarios like driving or crossing the street - things at which another recent study showed athletes to be better.
‘‘It is clear from these results that such mental processing and learning skills should be acknowledged as one of the critical elements for performance outcomes in sport,’’ said the paper.
The study could not say whether the superior learning ability was innate or acquired through practice, nor whether it was unique to athletes.
Previous studies had shown that parts of an athlete’s brain thicken the more they train, while another found a change in a brain region that regulates motion perception.