Are Athletes “Meatheads”—Or Smarter Than You Are?

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Professional athletes may not always sound like geniuses during interviews. But as a group, they are are far brainier than average when it comes to certain learning skills, a new study has found. Emily Chung of CBC News reports:

“‘What we found is spectacular, the difference [between the learning skills of professional athletes and a comparison group of college students],’ said University of Montreal researcher Joceyln Faubert. ‘It’s not just little.’

The result helps resolve 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.’

Athletes drawn from the National Hockey League, an NCAA sports program at American University, and a European Olympic training center, among other places, were compared with non-athlete University of Montreal students.

They were all given a cognitive test that involved paying attention to and tracking fast-moving objects. ‘[The stimuli are] 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.” (Read more here.)

This is a paradox I see again and again: there’s the common stereotype of athletes as not-too-intelligent “meatheads,” and then the consistent research finding that actually, athletes (particularly at the top levels) are incredibly sharp and quick.

What accounts for this paradox, do you think?

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One Response to “Are Athletes “Meatheads”—Or Smarter Than You Are?”

  1. Jmkam says:

    Top tier athletes typically excel at self-reflection and at performance improvement…otherwise they wouldn’t be the best in their fields. Learning is fundamentally about making mistakes, accepting them, analyzing, validating, and applying them to self-corrections. I do not think the typical public school system prepares students to do this early enough, such that the university students who are not doing this else where, are not able to do it….possibly until they have completed university or graduate school.

    I already stress to my children the fundamental need to practice, practice, and practice, and accept that they will make mistakes. I tell them all the time…I do not care whether you made 0 errors or 10 errors, as long as work hard and take the time to review why you made however many errors

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