Physical ability is one thing, but new research suggests that professional athletes have higher visual processing intelligence. The ability to process complex dynamic visual scenes is what separates them from the pack.
The study compared the performance of 308 people using NeuroTracker, a visual processing program that measures how participants respond to different identification tasks after tracking balls on a screen that are bouncing and weaving among decoys. The study was recently published in Nature Scientific Reports.
Three groups were studied:
- 102 participants, professional athletes from the NHL or top tier soccer or rugby teams
- 173 elite amateurs, competitors from the U.S. National Collegiate Athletic Association or athletes who trained at a European Olympic training centre
- 33 non-athletic university students
Participants completed 15 training sessions over at least five days and researchers measured both how quickly and how much they improved their performance.
All groups improved performance with training, but professional athletes learned faster and did significantly better than elite amateurs and non-athletes.
The study concludes,
Professional athletes as a group have extraordinary skills for rapidly learning unpredictable, complex dynamic visual scenes that are void of any specific context. It is clear from these results that these remarkable mental processing and learning abilities should be acknowledged as critical elements for world-class performance in sport and potentially elite performance abilities in other dynamic contexts.
As reported in The Globe and Mail, study author and principal investigator Jocelyn Faubert from the University of Montreal says,
They have a special intelligence. And that’s an intelligence to be able to manage many, many things when it’s dynamic and difficult to follow and do it really fast. And they manage to learn it a lot better than anybody else.
Jocelyn Faubert is director of the visual psychophysics and perception laboratory at the University of Montreal and is also chief science officer at CogniSens Athletics Inc., which has licensed NeuroTracker.