What makes elite athletes so special? A key factor in their success may be their strong capacity for learning how to process complex dynamic visual scenes, a study published in Scientific Reports this week indicates.
Previous research suggests that an athlete’s sports-related perceptual-cognitive expertise is a crucial element of top-level competitive sport. Jocelyn Faubert measured the performance of 308 participants in a complex dynamic visual scene task devoid of context and motor control requirements, known as 3D-MOT (three-dimensional multiple-object-tracking). The participants comprised 102 professional sports players (including English Premier League soccer players, National Hockey League ice hockey players and players from the French Top 14 Rugby League), 173 elite amateur athletes and a group of 33 non-athlete university students. The professionals performed much better in the task than the other groups and they also improved more across 15 sessions. The amateurs, in turn, significantly outperformed the non-athletes.
Athletic performance depends on a wide range of characteristics, including sensory, physical and psychological make-up, so the participants’ scores in the 3D-MOT task are unlikely to correspond precisely with athletic ability. But the research does suggest that a mental processing skill for learning complex and unpredictable dynamic scenes is one of the important components of sports performance.