The Secret Advantage of Elite Athletes – Their Mind

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The perceptual sports skills that separate experts from amateurs are learned.

Photo: BHM pics

No one is born with the anticipatory skills required of an elite athlete. As an individual practices a skill, whether it be hitting, throwing, or learning to drive a car, the mental processes involved in executing the skill move from the higher conscious areas of the brain in the frontal lobe, back to more primitive areas (aka. Lizard brain) that control automated processes, or skills that you can execute “without thinking”.

In sports, brain automation is hyper-specific to the practiced skill, so specific that brain-imaging studies of athletes who train in a particular task show that activity in the frontal lobe is turned down only when they do that exact task. When runners are put on bicycles their frontal lobe activity increases compared with when they are running, even though cycling wouldn’t seen to require much conscious thought. The physical activity that one trains in is very specifically tied to how the brain is automated. “Thinking” about an action is the sign of a novice in sports, or how to transform an expert back into an amateur. As an example, a golfer can overcome pressure-induced choking by preoccupying the higher conscious areas of the brain – and letting the innate part of the brain do the work, so to speak.

Innate Reaction of Elite Athletes

It is only by recognizing body cues and patterns with the rapidity of an unconscious process that Albert Pujols can determine whether he should swing at a ball when it has barely left the pitcher’s hand. The same goes for quarterback Peyton Manning. He cannot stop in the face of blitzing linebackers and consciously sort through the defensive alignments and patterns he learned from years of practicing and studying game film. He has seconds to scan the field and throw.

It’s Software plus Hardware

The perceptual sports skills that separate experts from amateurs are learned, or downloaded (like software), via practice. They don’t come standard as part of the human body (hardware). It’s not genetic, but rather the role of deliberate practice and repetition.

If you would like to read more about this topic, there is a paper in 2009 titled, “Toward a Science of Exceptional Achievement” which sparked the 10,000 hours rule (the “magic number of greatness”) – which has now become embedded in the world of athlete development and an impetus for starting children early in training for sports.

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