Such differences in brain activity
reflect the players’ different concerns.
“The novices were worried about all kinds
of things — wind, water and sand,” Milton
says. “The pro golfers just hit the ball.”
Yogi Berra once famously quipped
that he couldn’t “think and hit at the
same time,” and Milton believes that
devoting too much conscious attention
to swing mechanics could actually hurt
performance, even among big leaguers.
His research suggests that when profes-
sional golfers think too long about their
shots, the athletes activate parts of their
brains that they haven’t used during golf
since first learning the game, throwing
finely tuned sensorimotor pathways out
of whack. “This is because the expert’s
brain has already figured out the optimal
solution, and anything they consciously
change will disrupt that,” Milton says.
The experience of “being in the zone”
could simply be what happens when the
brain regions making athletes conscious
of their movements are finally quieted
and motor centers get free rein to guide
the players to victory.
Such an ability to perform a complex motor task without thinking, also
called automaticity, gives an athlete a
big advantage in competition. But to
access a complex movement subconsciously, the athlete must first rehearse
the motion countless times in training,
fully developing the nerve connections
essential for expert muscle control.
“Practice may not make perfect, but it
makes permanent,” Milton says.
How close an athlete can get to perfection through training may be driven
by attributes a person is born with. “It
depends on the way the neurons connect
to the muscles, and that can’t change,”
says Daniel Wolpert of the University of
Cambridge in England.
The way the nervous system interacts
with the musculoskeletal system isn’t
flawless. Transmission errors along the
way serve as a sort of sensory static, or
“noise,” that prevents the muscles from
hearing the message the brain is sending. Static can also disrupt messages that
sensory organs such as the eyes and skin
send to the brain, leaving an athlete with
The brains of expert
a swing (left, two
views) show different
activation patterns in
motor areas and in
the superior parietal
area than the brains
of beginners (right).
show much more
activity in the limbic
system, an area
involved in emotion.
Primary motor area (ventral)
Primary motor area (dorsal)
Superior parietal area
Supplementary motor area
Cingulate motor area
a distorted image of the state of the game.
Players with less noise gumming up
their sensorimotor systems are predisposed to athletic glory. With fewer
disruptions, these athletes are able to
elicit strong, fast muscle contractions
that are incredibly accurate, cheating
what scientists call the speed-accuracy, or
energy-accuracy, trade-off. Unlike most
people, expert athletes don’t have to slow
down to improve their execution.
A lucky few are granted this genetic
head start, but anyone can “train muscles
and refine a way of moving that reduces
the bad consequences of the noise that’s
already there,” Wolpert says.
So training is not only about building
bulk to overpower an opponent, but also
about teaching more nerve and muscle
fibers to work in unison to hone one’s
movements. Scientists think brain cells
known as mirror neurons may help.
The value of reflection
When a person watches someone else
performing an action, the same neurons
that would fire if the observer were replicating that action become active — even if
that observer is standing completely still.
This neural activity is the brain’s way of
simulating the motion being witnessed,
and can help an athlete reproduce those
movements. Mirror neurons thus provide
“a system for matching what you do with
what you see others doing,” says Salvatore
Aglioti of Sapienza University of Rome.
The mirror system may also mediate
another important function in the athlete’s brain — anticipation. If mirror neurons are already simulating the motions
of an opponent, an observing athlete
might use information from those neurons to chart out the full course of the
adversary’s motion. In sports where time
is of the essence, the ability to predict a
movement offers a major leg up.
Based on his knowledge of the mirror
system, Aglioti hypothesized that athletes focus attention not solely on the
ball, for example, but also on their opponents’ bodies to gain clues that will help
in deciding whether to expend energy
on a certain response. He studied how
well expert basketball players, novices
and expert watchers including coaches
gauged the result of a free throw based
solely on time-lapse photographs depicting various stages of another player’s
shooting motion, reporting the findings
in 2008 in Nature Neuroscience. “
Compared to novices and scouts, elite athletes
were better at predicting the outcome of
a shot after watching the body motion of
basketball players,” Aglioti says.
Expert cricket batters also appear to
gain important information from the
physical details of an opponent’s throwing motion, suggests a team of Australian researchers. After showing study
participants sequential photographs of
a bowler in motion, the scientists found
that elite batters’ ability to predict the