Athletic genius: An argument for the intelligence of athletic gifts

Originally published in Los Angeles Sports & Fitness, May/June 2012.

As a child, my parents emphasized the importance of academics, like most responsible parents. They encouraged my sports participation, but if I had to sacrifice one for the other, it was clear that athletics would be sacrificed for academics. Throughout high school, I was reminded by every adult in my sphere of influence that I was not going to be a professional athlete. The implication was that my G.P.A. was far more important than recreational pursuits. This is a fairly common story, and many of the young children that I coach have been indoctrinated with this belief. We have this idea that G.P.A. equals intelligence and a good future, while playing games is trivial. Athletes rarely are considered intellectual geniuses. 

The dichotomy between intelligence and athletics stems from our misperceptions of sports. When we watch a great athlete, we see a physical dominance: Speed, strength, quickness. We imagine these feats to be performed by someone with innate gifts, and we attribute the success to the athlete’s muscles. These are the visible markers of performance. Unfortunately, we are unable to see the invisible aspects of performance that occur within the brain, so we ignore these unless we have a very special appreciation for visual-motor skills or cognitive-perceptual skills. When we see examples of amazing perceptual skills, we attempt to give these skills a physical quality: TV analysts often say things like, “He has eyes in the back of his head”, and the audience accepts this as a plausible explanation. We discount the unseen skills like pattern recognition, anticipation, and response selection that affect performance in sports, so we characterize great athletes as physically gifted, but ignore their intellect. Therefore, when we think of intellectual pursuits, we picture the classroom, not the ball fields.

Is this perception accurate? Is academic learning more important than playing games? A study by Torbjorn Vestberg and colleagues (2012) titled “Executive Functions Predict the Success of Top-Soccer Players,” found that soccer players performed better in a test of general executive functions than non-soccer players and attributed this difference in performance to skills learned by playing soccer. Further, players in the highest division performed better than players in a lower division. The study used a test called “Design Fluency (DF), a standardized test which measures online multiprocessing such as creativity, response inhibition, and cognitive flexibility….DF is a non-verbal psychomotor test.” The test eliminated any sport-related advantage and focused on qualities that teachers hope to develop in their students, especially cognitive flexibility and creativity. This test could not determine causality; for instance, are people with these enhanced executive functions drawn to soccer or does playing soccer enhance the executive functions? If people with these qualities are drawn toward soccer (or other sports), why discourage this approach? If soccer develops these enhanced qualities, maybe children should invest more time in playing rather than less. Regardless of the causality, the study suggests that playing sports is not trivial.

A 2004 study in Nature by Bogdan Draganski and colleagues titled “Changes in grey matter induced by training” found that juggling increased grey matter in the brain. Furthermore, it was not the specific act of juggling, but the learning of something new that induced the changes. “We conclude that juggling, and consequently the perception and spatial anticipation of moving objects, is a stronger stimulus for structural plasticity in the visual areas (used for the retention of visual-motion information) than in the motor areas (involved in the planning and execution of coordinate motion).” Most sports that involve a ball require the participants to perceive and anticipate a moving object in space – hitting a baseball, catching a football, chasing a frisbee – and building these skills would enhance the retention of visual-motion information. Playing sports provide opportunities for specific types of learning that may not occur in the classroom, and this learning induces positive changes in the brain. A 2011 study in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise by Laura Chaddock and colleagues found that athletes outperformed their peers on a task of crossing a street with and without distractions and had faster reaction times. Again, causality could not be determined.

A New York Times article from June 2011 titled “Brain Calisthenics for Abstract Ideas” by Benedict Carey argues for the importance of the same pattern recognition and perceptual skills displayed by great athletes. Carey writes: “For years school curriculums have emphasized top-down instruction….Learn the rules first….then make a run at the problem list at the end of the chapter. Yet recent research has found that true experts have something at least as valuable as a mastery of the rules: gut instinct, an instantaneous grasp of the type of problem they’re up against. Like the ballplayer who can ‘read’ pitches early, or the chess master who ‘sees’ the best move, they’ve developed a great eye. Now, a small group of cognitive scientists is arguing that schools and students could take far more advantage of this same bottom-up ability, called perceptual learning. The brain is a pattern-recognition machine, after all, and when focused properly, it can quickly deepen a person’s grasp of a principle, new studies suggest. Better yet, perceptual knowledge builds automatically.”

Essentially, these cognitive scientists are arguing for learning math problems – and other subjects – in a way familiar to athletes. The difference between the two methods is apropos to sports development. The traditional approach would be more like a coach who teaches his players a set play to run, while the new approach is more like players who learn to play by playing many pick-up games. In the traditional approach, students and players have one way to solve a problem. In the new approach, students and players learn to solve problems by thinking creatively and using their intuition. A great athlete often cannot explain why he made a certain decision, other than to say that it felt right. When Chris Paul makes the great pass that causes the analysts to suggest that he has eyes in the back of the head, he may suggest that he felt his teammate behind him. In reality, his brain quickly analyzed the situation, anticipated the movements of his teammates and defenders based on his experience in hundreds of similar situations, recognized a pattern in the defense, and made the right decision to throw the lob over his left shoulder for Blake Griffin to finish. While we see this as a breath-taking physical skill, this occurs in the brain: This is intellectual genius just as Sheldon’s character on The Big Bang Theory exhibits his genius in theoretical physics.

When Sheldon solves a complex problem on a blackboard, we do not marvel at his hand-eye dexterity or the precision of his lines on the blackboard. The genius is in solving the problem, not the physical manipulation of the pen that demonstrates the solution physically for others to read. Similarly, when Paul throws the alley-oop, the genius is not the manipulation of the basketball to toss a ball over one’s head, but the genius to solve the problem posed by the defense while under time-stress.

When we re-orient our perceptions of the skills of athletes, we see genius beyond the physical feats. A great point guard, midfielder, or setter solves hundreds, if not thousands of problems in each game. These are intellectual problems which enhance the athlete’s cognitive-perceptual skills. When allowed to make these decisions freely, rather than trying to follow the coach’s directions, this decision-making leads to cognitive flexibility and creativity. As the studies by Chaddock and Vestberg demonstrated, this intelligence transfers beyond the playing field (whether it is created on the field or the person draw to the sport is endowed with the superior skills, the transfer between the field and other activities is there).

Rather than imagining sports as trivial, physical pursuits, we should embrace the learning and skill development that occurs through playing sports and encourage children to engage in many and diverse physical pursuits to complement their schoolwork, as these pursuits may not be only a diversion from school, but lead to enhanced academic and real-world performance.

By Brian McCormick, M.S.S., PES
Coach/Clinician, Brian McCormick Basketball
Author, Cross Over: The New Model of Youth Basketball Development
Director of Coaching, Playmakers Basketball Development League

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