There is admittedly a certain mental agility required for successful strategizing during games by athletes. In game situations, the athlete as an individual must apply prior knowledge of technique needed and memory of similar past experiences to make the most effective decision to better their team’s overall achievement in a game. But, how does this translate to an athlete’s overall mental capability?
It has already been found that there is a clear distinction between level of athletic performance and corresponding mental ability for learning dynamic scene tasks. Meaning athletes, especially those of a higher level of sporting ability, can more quickly assess and respond to dynamic visual situations, even without context. This, however, still says little about an athlete’s ability in real-world situations.
First, perhaps it’ll be easier with a clear definition of cognitive ability. In this column, the use of the term cognitive ability refers to the brain-based skills needed to complete any task, whether it be simple to highly complex, they are essentially the mechanisms for learning, memory and problem-solving. With this definition it becomes particularly clear that to be involved in any sport with some degree of success will require a good amount of cognitive ability.
It is well known that physical activity can, over a lifetime, improve cognitive functioning. In a study from researchers at the University of Montana, participation in aerobic activities during the years of young adulthood aided in the preservation of memory and thinking in middle age. 2,747 people in good health at an average age of twenty-five took part in a treadmill test and another one twenty years later, along with cognitive tests to measure verbal memory, psychomotor speed and executive function. Overall, it was found that better cognitive function was directly linked to better fitness twenty years later.
In a separate study done at the University of Eastern Finland, the researchers found that physical activity in midlife could protect from dementia in old age. The researchers found that staying physically active, or even becoming physically active, can greatly lessen the risk of dementia later in life, especially for those who were overweight in their midlife. This is caused by physical activities’ ability to stimulate new neuron growth through neurogenesis. Previously it was thought that the human brain was unable to produce new brain cells, however, in the late 1990s neural stem cells that can be regenerated into brain neurons were discovered. The process for neurogenesis is controlled by a gene code that causes the production of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (bdnf), a protein that plays a key role in making new neurons. The gene that activates bdnf is turned on many ways – one of which is physical activity. This is all excellent evidence of the effects of physical activity on cognitive ability, but this has been a precursor to athletes and cognitive ability.
Laura Chaddock and a team of several psychologists at the University of Illinois brought in eighteen college athletes and eighteen non-athletes into their lab. All of the student volunteers wore virtual reality glasses and in a simulated environment had to cross the street while listening to music or talking on the phone. To be deemed successful the participant had to cross the street without being hit. As expected the student athletes were more successful in crossing the street than the non-athletes. This wasn’t due to speeding across the street or anything like that, the athletes just seemed to be more skilled in multitasking. With the lack of any physical differences in crossing the street, the athletes just appeared to be thinking faster. This implies the importance of athletes’ abilities off of the playing field. For example, soccer players with better memory and attention spans score more goals and elite basketball players better at reading plays and guessing their opponents decisions than non-athletes. This ability is not limited to athletes in sports that require a lot physical muscle and fitness, a recent study found karate experts have more white matter in their brains than novices meaning they possibly have better motor control. And professional divers had larger orbitofrontal cortexes than novices and longer careers corresponded to how large this cortex was – and as such were better able to control behavior related to reward and punishment.
Further, higher level athletes scored higher on certain cognitive function tests than university students in a study from the University of Montreal. As stated before, athletes are better at comprehending complex, dynamic visual scenes. Participants watched a simulation of several objects moving in a 3D space and had to describe what they had seen. The movements were generated randomly to ensure they would bare no resemblance to a real sport. Though all participants improved over the course of the tests, the athletes were ultimately significantly better at tracking fast object movements. This excellent visual processing of athletes may be due to thicker cortexes in some areas in comparison to the average person. It must also be noted that the cognitive skills used in these tests are essential for everyday activities, like crossing the street and driving.
Overall, the enhanced cognitive abilities of athletes cannot be denied, especially in relation to real world activities.