The old adage ‘skate to where the puck is going, not where it has been’ is more often used as a metaphor for business these days, but consider it literally and you’re left with a very tantalizing scientific question. Can great athletes make better predictions about the future than others? And if so, well... how the heck would that work?!
First off—yes, several studies have confirmed athletes' superior action prediction abilities, using what’s called visual occlusion tasks. The idea is you show someone a video of (for example) a soccer player taking a penalty kick, and you stop the video just as their foot touches the ball, then ask the viewer to predict where the ball went. When researchers show both athletes and non-athletes these videos, then ask them to predict the outcome, they’ve repeatedly found athletes can predict action outcomes better than non-athletes.
While we don’t totally understand how they're doing this, here's 6 facts to bring you up to speed on what the cutting-edge has gleaned:
1 = Athletes’ speedy eye movements give them an edge
Let’s start where information about movement enters the nervous system: the eyes. While research has found athletes’ no better than normal at identifying what is being projected on their retina, the way athletes’ brains controls eye movements, does seem to differ.
Our ability to track objects through space is dependent on our eye’s ability to produce saccades—jerky, coordinated movements of the two eyes together that work to keep the center of your visual field (the fovea; where your visual fidelity is the highest) flitting around to all the most important parts of your visual field. And research has found athletes’ eyes produce more saccades, spending less time fixating on any one portion of their visual scene.
The sum of this is that athletes' eyes are taking in information at a faster rate than non-athletes. As you’ll see from the next 5 Facts, this is not the sole reason athlete’s possess this prescient ability, but it’s clearly an important first-step in giving their nervous system’s a leg up knowing ‘where the puck is going’.
2 = Athlete’s motor cortex informs their predictions
When making predictions about sports-action outcomes, athletes show increased motor cortex activity. But what’s more, if athletes are asked to complete a motor task (simply squeezing their fist, which is accomplished through motor cortex activity—keeping this brain area ‘busy’) while watching their sport and making a prediction about what’s about to happen, their ability to predict the outcome falls back to normal levels. And this is not simply an effect of divided-attention: a condition where athletes had to complete a strictly cognitive (i.e. non-motor) task did not interfere with their action-prediction abilities. This suggests the increased motor cortex activity athletes demonstrate watching a sports scene, is in some way critical for this enhanced ability to ‘see into the future’.
3 = Mirror neurons are involved
Mirror neurons are brain cells sensitive to both the performance and observation of the same action. In a sense they ‘mirror’ the actions you see—making your brain's activity while you see an action more similar to (or a ‘mirror’ of) your brain's activity when you’re performing that action.
Of course, if a mirror neuron is active when you watch a sport, this implies your brain has an idea (what we might call a ‘neural representation’) of how you would perform the movements required for that sport. And in fact, research shows when athletes predict the outcome of a play in their sport, they show enhanced activity in brain regions known to possess mirror neurons (inferior frontal and parietal specifically). The authors conclude that since athletes have spent more time performing these actions themselves, the ‘mirroring’ pattern of brain activity, which everyone demonstrates to some degree, is more extensive. This super-charged understanding of the movement they’re seeing may be what allows them to better predict the outcome of their opponents movements.
4 – Athletes' eyes see what most cannot
A recent study suggests that athletes' brains extensive experience with the movement involved in their sport allows them to pick up on subtle differences in movement. Tennis players were shown many videos of serves, and the places on the server’s body they were shown to fixate on were locations that made that serve unique from the average serve (these parts of the serve would also be most informative for predicting the location of the ball). What the authors hypothesize is happening here, is that the motor simulation (if you’re interested, see our previous post on this topic) taking place in the athlete’s brain makes the telling details of their opponents movements ‘pop out’, drawing the eyes towards these details, and giving them more information about the outcome of the movement than the average person.
5 = The ‘Cross-Over’ athlete has their brain to thank
A study showing that soccer players’ had an enhanced ability to predict kick direction using point light displays, also found soccer players were better at predicting the trajectory of various types of biological motion. It seems that the unique attributes of the athletes’ brains, that allow them to predict the outcome of plays in their own sport, may benefit them in other sports, or even in mundane, everyday situations (for example, predicting whether someone will blink first when passing them on the street). This likely contributes to athletes’ ability to switch sports easier than people expect! (It’s also likely the reason an individual who is good at a select few video games is likely to pick up a new game and master it significantly-more-quickly than someone who is not a ‘gamer’)
6 = Be unique and you’re feigning your opponent’s brain
Athlete’s with a unique technique/way of moving often gain a competitive advantage in interactive sports. I personally quite enjoy baseball’s storied history of experimenting with all manner of outrageous pitching techniques, but even something as simple as being left handed can improve your value in your sport. Lefties are disproportionately represented in the sports world, and studies show that in interactive sports, athletes have more difficulty predicting the movements of lefties than righties.
This is usually attributed to a training effect—athletes train with righties more than lefties, giving lefties an advantage. But how does this work? It’s likely that when athletes primarily train to face righties, it predisposes the neural representations of their sports’ movements to a right-handed template. Given the connection between our brain’s activity when we move vs when we observe movement (see Facts 2 & 3), it’s not surprising this affects athletes’ ability to detect kinematic cues in their uniquely-moving opponents—cues they would be able to exploit if their opponent moved ‘more normal’.
So that’s where cutting edge neuroscience is on the topic of athletes’ amazing ability to see into the future. It’s exciting to think all this recently-gleaned knowledge (perhaps in conjunction with developments in brain computer interfaces and non-invasive brain stimulation) may someday allow trainers and coaches to help athletes ramp-up this preexisting ability in a targeted manner.
For the time being, I hope this crash course enhances your own ability to see the intricate beauty in humanity’s beautiful games.