Wednesday, June 2, 2010

The Genius Behind World Cup Stars

Only nine days before the World Cup kicks off and 10 days before the cross-Atlantic battle between the US and England. Over the course of the month, many of the world’s greatest athletes will be on display. It’s a long lamented fact that the USA’s best athletes are found in other sports. If Cristiano Ronaldo grew up in the United States, he’d be a wide receiver or third baseman or point guard something. Fortunately for us, he’s a soccer player and we get to watch as he and the likes of Wayne Rooney and Leo Messi show their genius on the pitch during the greatest sporting event on Earth.

A relatively recently published article in the science magazine Discover sheds an interesting light on just why great athletes like Ronaldo and Rooney can in fact be called geniuses. Their brains are simply wired that way.

That’s an oversimplified statement, and it comes as no surprise that athlete’s brains are different from us mere mortals. After all, it takes a certain type of person to dedicate every waking hour to the perfection of their athletic craft, to constantly crave and desire to be the best in his sport. I love soccer (you might say obsessed) and was pretty good at it, but it just wasn’t in my make-up to spend every free minute of my time juggling or dribbling or practicing shooting. Furthermore, thanks in large part to Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers, it’s more widely understood that becoming a master through practice is more important than genetic gifts alone (you certainly need those gifts, but those alone won’t get you there).

But what exactly happens with all that practice, why can you call the brains of those athletes the brains of geniuses? Well as the article explains, their brains arrive at solutions to problems quicker than most. Not exactly stunning news. But here’s the surprising part, athletes’ brain waves are actually quieter during competition than your average Joe, “which means they devoted less brain activity to these motor tasks than nonathletes did.”

Essentially, this is a scientific, neurological explanation of the difference between those people who “think too much” on the field and those who react more naturally and fluidly. And it’s practice that gets professionals to that expert level where their brain anatomy and neurons can change to become more efficient.

One of the experiments described was performed with soccer players:

“Several years ago Matthew Smith and Craig Chamberlain of the University of Northern Colorado examined the connection between the quieting of the [prefrontal] cortex and athletic ability. They had expert and unskilled soccer players dribble a ball through a slalom course of cones. At the same time, the players were asked to keep an eye on a projector screen on the wall to see when a particular shape appeared. Even with the second task, the seasoned soccer players could dribble at nearly full speed. Unskilled players did much worse than when they were undistracted, however. The disparity suggests that dribbling didn’t tax the expert player’s prefrontal cortex as heavily, leaving it free to deal with other challenges.”

Basically, the experts had uncluttered minds that can more easily solve problems presented by new and additional information in the flow of a performing a task. So Xavi’s mind is actually less busy as he’s controlling the ball and moving into space, allowing him to see the opening that will open a couple seconds later for Leo Messi (or in two weeks, David Villa). Xavi makes those connections easier and more efficiently than say Benny Feilhaber, let alone your average pub player, and apparently his brainwaves would tell us the same.

Contrast the above explanation with the picture of someone’s mind racing, trying to decide what to do with the ball, thinking too much, needing to concentrate hard just to have a proper first touch and dribble forward.

Just a little something for those of us sitting on the couch to think about as Ronaldo, Xavi, and the other geniuses in South Africa are doing their thing.

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