A sharp mind is beneficial to athletes
There are countless reasons why tennis stars Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal are so good. Most of them are physical, but one explanation for their success may be more about their mental prowess.
A study by scientists at Brunel University in West London and at the University of Hong Kong found that expert athletes are quicker to observe and react to their opponents’ moves than novice players, exhibiting enhanced activation of the cortical regions of the brain.
That split-second advantage can make all the difference for tennis players, particularly in a tournament like the U.S. Open.
The results of the study, which appeared earlier this year in NeuroReport, showed that more experienced players are better able to detect early anticipatory clues from opposing players’ body movements, giving them a split second advantage in preparing an appropriate response.
The study, which was headed by Michael Wright of Brunel University, involved observing the reaction time and brain activity of badminton players of varying degrees of ability, from recreational players to international competitors. The researchers used a functional MRI on participants, who were shown video clips of an opposing badminton player striking a shuttlecock and asked to predict where the shot would land.
In all participants, activation was observed in areas of the brain previously associated with the observation, understanding and preparation of human action. Expert players showed enhanced brain activity in these regions and responded quicker to the movements of their opponents.
Sports that involve a ball moving very quickly are particularly dependent on time-critical predictions of the actions of other players and of the consequences of those actions. For several decades, sports scientists have sought to understand how expertise in these sports is developed.