Several years ago, Matthew Smith and Craig Chamberlain of the University of Northern Colorado examined the connection between the quieting of the 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 had 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; while the unskilled players did much worse than when they were undistracted. The disparity suggests that dribbling did not tax an expert player’s prefrontal cortex as heavily, leaving it free to deal with other challenges.
Training increases brain efficiently
As the brains of athletes become more efficient, they learn how to make sense of new situations sooner. For example, in cricket, a bowler can hurl a ball at 100 miles an hour, giving batsmen a mere half second to calculate its path. In 2006, Sean Muller of the University of Queensland in Australia ran an experiment to see how well cricket batsmen can anticipate a bowler's pitch. He chose three types of cricket players, ranging in skill from national champions down to university players. The players watched videos of bowlers throwing balls. After each video was over, they had to predict what kind of pitch was coming and where it would land. In some cases, the video was cut off at the point at which the bowler released the ball. In other cases, the players got to see only the first step or two that the bowler took while the ball was still in his hand.