In March 2011, Laura Chaddock and a team of psychologists at the University of Illinois brought 18 college athletes into their lab. They also recruited 18 non-athletes and had all the volunteers wear snazzy virtual reality glasses while walking on treadmills. In a simulated environment, the participants crossed a busy street, sometimes while chatting on a cell phone, sometimes while listening to music. Success meant getting to the other side in one piece; failure meant getting hit by a car (virtually, of course)Do athletes excel at everyday tasks? Chaddock, L., Neider, M.B., Voss, M.W. Department of Psychology, Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, IL. Medicine and science in sports and exercise 2011;(10):1920-6..

As the researchers expected, athletes were more successful at crossing than non-athletes. But it wasn’t because they dashed across the road like Usain Bolt or scooted between cars like NFL wide receivers. Instead, the athletes appeared to be better multitaskers, more skilled than the non-athletes at checking for oncoming traffic before they set foot on the virtual pavement.

With no evidence of any physical differences in street-crossing behavior, “it actually seemed like these athletes were somehow able to think faster,” Chaddock says.

Illustration by Shannon Orcutt

Get Your Head in the Game — Sports May Change the Brain

Chaddock, an energetic PhD student at the Beckman Institute in Cognitive Neuroscience at Illinois, isn’t the first researcher to suggest that athletes have a cognitive advantage over non-athletes. But her study was one of the first that implied athletes’ cognitive skills might be just as useful off the playing field.

Recent research on the role of cognitive skills in sports has started blurring the line between brains and brawn. Athlete’s mental abilities, it appears, are just as important to their sports performance as the capacity to tackle an opponent or wallop a tennis ball over the net. Those same cognitive skills are just as useful in everyday tasks like navigating trafficked streets.

The idea that it’s possible to train athletes’ brains has been gaining in popularity. Scientists and sports experts have started to worry that, at least in America, athletes and coaches don’t pay enough attention to the importance of thinking skills in sports. They cite the growing body of research on the role of cognitive abilities in sports, most of which looks at differences between athletes during the actual game. In soccer, for example, those with better attention spans and memories score more goals, and are more likely to play on high-division teamsExecutive Functions Predict the Success of Top Soccer Players. Vestberg, T., Gustafson, R., Maurex, L., et al. Department of Clinical Neuroscience, Karolinska Institut Stockholm, Stockholm, Sweden. PLoS One 2012;7(4): e34731.. Elite basketball players are better than non-athletes at reading plays and predicting when their opponent’s about to go for a slam-dunk or pass it offAction anticipation and motor resonance in elite basketball players. Aglioti, S.M., Cesari, P., Romani, M., et al. Dipartimento di Psicologia, Sapienza Università di Roma, Roma, Italy. Nature neuroscience 2008;11(9):1109-16..

Even athletes who don’t have chest muscles that tear through their shirts may be somwhat anatomically different from non-athletes. A recent study found karate experts had more white matter in their brains than newbies, suggesting that the pros have better motor control Individual Differences in Expert Motor Coordination Associated with White Matter Microstructure in the Cerebellum. Roberts, R.E., Bain, P.G., Day, B.L., et al. Centre for Neuroscience, Imperial College London, London, UK. Cerebal Cortex 2012. Epub ahead of print.. Other research comparing professional and novice divers found that the professionals had thicker orbitofrontal cortexes. The longer their athletic careers, the bigger this part of their brains wasIncreased Cortical Thickness in Sports Experts: A Comparison of Diving Players with the Controls. Wei, G., Zhang, Y., Jiang, T., et al. Key Laboratory of Mental Health, Institute of Psychology, Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS), Beijing, People’s Republic of China. PLoS One 2011;6(2): e17112.. That basically means that divers with extensive training and practice were better at controlling behaviors related to reward and punishment, a result the researchers couldn’t quite explain.

But it’s hard to say whether years of batting practice changes athletes’ brains or whether the people who make it to the Big Leagues have advanced cognitive abilities to begin with. There’s reason to believe it might work both ways: Certain people start out more skilled and years of training develop those abilities into professional talent. Right now some scientists say athletes don’t focus enough on strengthening those cognitive abilities.

Eye on the Ball — New Developments in Brain Training

“There’s virtually no cognitive training of athletes,” says Dr. Jocelyn Faubert, a professor and the NSERC-Essilor Industrial Research Chair at the University of Montreal. A few years ago Faubert co-founded CogniSens Athletics, a company focused on sports-related performance and assessments. Referring to the lack of cognitive training in sports, Faubert says, “I think it’s because people just don’t understand how important [cognitive skills are] for action.”

Faubert is the brains behind Neurotracker, a program that trains skills like paying attention and tracking targets. To start, athletes sign up for a series of video-game-style exercises in simulated 3D environments. They can train in Faubert’s Montreal lab, at a professional athletic facility, or at home.

According to Faubert, Neurotracker programs are more efficient versions of the training most athletes do on a regular basis. Instead of working on multiple skills at the same time, the program determines which cognitive skills are most important for the user — anything from concentrating to thinking on your feet — and trains each ability selectively. So far it’s been used in professional sports leagues including the NFL and NHL and even the U.S. military, where it’s even more important to stay focused and make quick decisions.

Athletic training is “a very, very very plastic process,” Faubert says. The brain can restructure as we learn new skills, sort of like how muscles grow and develop as we push their limits.

But getting athletes to reach their full potential may be easier said than done. It costs about $20,000 to sign up for the Neurotracker system designed for professional use; the at-home system costs about $10,000.

In reality, though, most sports practice already incorporates some amount of cognitive training, whether that’s developing hand-eye coordination or learning to make split-second decisions on the field or court.

“Training an athlete’s brain has existed, I think, for all of time in sports,” says Jason Sada, CEO of Axon Sports. Axon uses some of those high-tech tools to train what they call the “athletic brain,” or the mental abilities important in sports. In 2011, the company set up a training lab at Athletes’ Performance, an athletic training facility in Phoenix, AZ. Around the same time, the company launched a blog about research on cognitive skills in sports.

Axon divides the athletic brain into six components that include high-speed decision-making; spatial reasoning and pattern recognition; and focus and concentration. Training programs depend on the skills that are most useful in the user’s specific sport and position. Right now Axon’s clients are mostly male collegiate and professional athletes between ages 18 and 30, who come to the Phoenix lab to bulk up their brains. Axon is also working on iPad apps for high school football and baseball players so they can train by themselves. The goal of the app, Sada said, is to train athletes to make decisions as quickly as possible, or “to become very accurate with less and less information.”

But Neurotracker and Axon Sports aren’t just about improving brain function. Brain-training programs are being used to rehabilitate athletes after they sustain a concussion or other head-trauma injuries. The idea is to develop a “baseline,” determined by the athlete’s average performance on the last three training sessions. Should an athlete see stars after butting heads with an angry linebacker, he/she can return to the field after hitting that baseline again. “The rehab component is huge,” Faubert says of Neurotracker, since there tend to be a lot of head injuries in the NFL and the military. But those working on cognitive training programs say they’re useful way before someone gets knocked out.

Think Fast — The Future of Sports and Cognitive Training

Researchers are optimistic that cognitive exercises will soon be a standard part of athletic training. At the very least, Sada says, he hopes the research Axon shares on its blog will make sure “people are more and more aware of how critical the brain is in sports.”

Scientists also see opportunities for more research in the future. Chaddock, a former varsity tennis star, has more than a professional interest in her research. “I don’t think that the dumb jock stereotype is true at all,” she told me, noting that in her experience, students involved in athletics tend to outperform non-athletes on tests of cognitive performance.

In fact, if non-athletes want to boost their brainpower, it may be time for them to get off the sidelines and into their workout gear. At least based on her research, “I really do think that sports may help train the brain,” Chaddock said when I asked her whether playing sports could benefit non-athletes, too.

For Faubert, the opportunities are even greater. He spoke excitedly about how it’s possible to change brain structure by learning new skills. Not every athlete can turn into Michael Jordan but everyone has the chance to improve. “You always want to close the gap” between more and less skilled athletes, he says. “Can we close the gap for everyone? I’ll say I’m not sure, but we try.”

Was cognitive training ever a part of your sports practice? Tell us in the comments below.