Footballers are better at predicting opponents’ movements, MRI research finds
Ever wondered what makes Cristiano Ronaldo so good at intercepting the ball?
By studying brain scans, Brunel University researchers have discovered that highly-skilled footballers are able to activate more areas of their brain than novices when they see an opponent heading towards them, making them better able to anticipate their moves. The research, published in the Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, found that experienced players seem to have developed a ‘checking’ system that suppresses the urge to react instinctively, making them less likely to fall for deceptive feints.
The research, which looks to discover the neural basis for cognitive superiority, involved 39 participants ranging from semi-professional footballers to novices. The participants lay in an MRI scanner whilst watching clips of a junior international-level player dribbling a ball toward them. On some occasions the oncoming player performed a deceptive manoeuvre and participants had to decide in which direction to move, while their brain activity was monitored. They were then grouped according to how well they performed. The skilled footballers were more attuned to the actions and deceptive movements of opponents than their less-skilled counterparts.
The results also showed evidence of stronger activation of the Mirror Neuron System (MNS) when predicting an opponent’s actions. The MNS is active not only when performing an action within our personal repertoire, but also when viewing that same action performed by others. Hence, there was clear evidence of ‘recognition’ of the opponents’ movements in the more skilled performers.
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