How Do Athletes' Brains Work?

Carl Zimmer takes a look at what makes athletes’ brains tick. Research has shown that athletes’ brains are more efficient (“they produce the desired result with the help of fewer neurons”), analyze new situations faster, and can better predict the outcomes of tasks. Athletes may start off with some advantages, but it’s also true that their brains simply rewire themselves with practice. It’s possible to mimic this “rewiring” effect — electric stimulation of the brain produces similar results — which leads Zimmer to ask a fascinating question: “Would it be cheating for a tennis player to wear a portable electrode as she practiced her serve? She would, after all, just be hastening the same changes that come with ordinary practice.” (HT: Marginal Revolution) [%comments]


So this is why athletes are good at sales & trading.


I'd be interested in seeing how fighter pilots' brains respond (or other combat-oriented people). They make multiple decisions in very short intervals under immense physical and mental stress.


exercising regularly usually does that to a person.

Slave Rat

What do you know... Electroshock therapy was good after all.


. "One of the most spectacular examples of the athletic brain operating at top speed came in 2001, when the Yankees were in an American League playoff game with the Oakland Athletics. Shortstop Derek Jeter managed to grab an errant throw coming in from right field and then gently tossed the ball to catcher Jorge Posada, who tagged the base runner at home plate. Jeter's quick decision saved the game-and the series-for the Yankees. To make the play, Jeter had to master both conscious decisions, such as whether to intercept the throw, and unconscious ones. These are the kinds of unthinking thoughts he must make in every second of every game: how much weight to put on a foot, how fast to rotate his wrist as he releases a ball, and so on."

However, Jeremy Giambi, the baserunner, had the opposite reaction or was not thinking at all If he had slid home, he would have been safe, and no one would have remembered Jeter's play. (Some SABRmatricians say that Jeter was in the wrong place anway, but that may say more about them than about Jeter)


David Chowes, New York City

The only downside which I can invisage is if done -- then pressure would be put upon so many others to do the same as well.

Otherwise: it couldn't be detected -- so, why not?

Ian Kemmish

Well, you don't exactly need athletes and brain scanners to reach these conclusions. While playing the harpsichord, Richard Egarr has enough spare capacity to hold a conversation, or indeed deliver an extempore lecture. I don't even have enough spare to stop myself pulling silly faces.

I've heard distinguished neuroscientists on the BBC also talking about the role of practice in developing just these areas of the brains for musicians, and claiming that there is a "golden age" up to about ten years old when intensive practice really delivers benefits; if you've not started to shine by adolescence, then you probably never will.

Gregory Tulloss

Athletes practice routine scenarios (example: the 6-4-3 double play) so often that their response is trained reaction, not an exercise of critical thinking. How much of this continual conditioning can be considered useful outside of closed systems like sports?

Bobby G

I feel like this is linked to blood doping in cycling as a form of cheating (the process where an athelete will take samples of his own blood during practice/training, then isolate the red blood cells, and inject them back into himself at night between stages). Eh, maybe blood doping is worse (changing blood makeup, even if it's only with your own blood).


Sorry, but I didn't see any mention of them testing these athletes brains at doing non-athletic things, and not even doing athletic things outside their sport. To me it was a bit of a ho-hummer, except for that part at the end about training with a battery zapping your motor cortex. Zowee!


Newsflash: Deliberate practice will train part of the brain to do it better. News at eleven.


New type of PED: Performance-Enhancing Device?


Practice makes perfect? Who knew?

I think the tennis example isn't really the issue - as that is a normal scenario. I would think that pre-programming for scenarios that are out-of-the-ordinary where a - previously - unrelated set of experiences comes into play...

The example I would think of is this one...

... since someone brought up cycling!

My belief is that performance should be a product of effort and practice. If the electrodes were studying your brain so that you could learn how to tune your workouts, that would be fundamentally different than if the electrodes were actually configuring your response scenarios.


Report misuuses classic definition of the word, work, in a scientific [measurable] sense. Report reinforces the concept of perfect repetition of an action produces a predictable response. Besides, I tutored enough jocks to get them through their classes to know that the concept of intellectual thought and thesis, anti-thesis, synthesis development is not part of the primary cognitive process of the standard jock. It's easier to train a horse to count than teach a jock to analyze anything..

Rich Wilson

I'd be interested in sports breakdown. Some sports require a lot more 'what if' kind of thinking. For events like Track and Field, not so much.


According to Sports Illustrated...

"Legend has it Ted Williams could count the seams on an approaching fastball. It's been said that he could read the label of a 78 RPM record spinning on a turntable. Williams was so in tune with the craft of hitting, he swore he could smell the wood burn on his bat when he ticked a pitch foul."