"What we found is spectacular, the difference," said University of Montreal researcher Joceyln Faubert in an interview Thursday. "It's not just little."
The result finally solves a longstanding mystery about professional athletes, he added: What is it about them that allows them to play at such a high level compared to everyone else?
"It's really how fast they learn new things," he said. "The ability to learn something is what makes them experts."
The participants in the study included:
- 102 male professional athletes, drawn from the NHL, EPL and France's Top 14 clubs.
- 173 male and female elite amateur athletes involved in team or combat sports, drawn from the NCAA American University sports program and a European Olympic training centre.
- 33 male and female, non-athlete University of Montreal students.
They were all given a cognitive test that involved paying attention to and tracking fast-moving objects – a task described as using similar skills as driving or crossing a busy street.
"It's all happening extremely fast and a lot at one time," said Faubert, director of the Visual Psychophysics and Perception Laboratory at the University of Montreal's School of Optometry.
None of the study participants had ever before seen the test, known as "three-dimensional multiple object tracking," so it was something new that they had to learn. Their performance was recorded over 15 learning sessions.
The professional athletes started off performing better on the test and improved more quickly than the other two groups. The amateur athletes started off performing at a similar level to the university students, but they improved more quickly. There was no significant difference between the performance of men and women in the study, Faubert said.
The results were published Thursday in Scientific Reports, an online, open access peer-reviewed journal hosted by Nature Publishing Group.
Faubert said it wasn't clear whether the athletes' superior performance was innate or as a result of training, but he thinks it's likely a bit of both.
Superior focus may help with other tasks
While the task was designed to test abilities that benefit athletes on the field, it also requires skills that are needed for things like academic learning, he said. "Attention is very critical for all learning."
Athletes' superior ability to focus and pay attention means "if they concentrated on something else, they'd probably be good at that, too."
Faubert added that intelligence is "not just the ability to do mathematics or write" and one needs to be careful about how it is defined, as the abilities tested in this study are a form of intelligence too.
He said the study calls into question the common assumption that superior athletic ability is mainly about physical factors such as speed and strength.
"We all have stereotypes about athletes: 'They can't even say two words straight, they're not very good at expressing themselves' and so on,'" he said. "But their brain is busy doing something else."
In fact, he said, it's the "something about their brains" that sets apart top athletes. He cited the example of retired Canadian NHL hockey star Wayne Gretzky, who wasn't unusually fast or strong compared to other players in his league, but scored more points than any other player in NHL history.
"The stars are the ones that can really read the play, anticipate the play."
Faubert said he is currently testing whether practicing the three-dimensional multiple-object tracking task can improve people's ability to pay attention and learn, especially among people with attention-deficit disorder and the elderly.
Faubert is the chief science officer of CogniSense Athletics Inc., which produces Neurotracker, a commercial version of the task. The Neurotracker website claims that by practicing the task, athletes can improve their mental focus, sustained concentration, response time and situational awareness, enhancing their overall performance.