athletes · health · stereotypes · team sports

Top athletes aren’t just faster and fitter, they’re also smarter


I’ve written before about how I wasn’t a high school athlete. Yet, these days most of the people I hang out with have fond memories of high school sports. Often people are surprised that this is all new to me, that I wasn’t on the volleyball team, for example, in high school. Or that I’ve never played rugby. Sigh, rugby. (See my post on team sports and regrets.)

Why not?

Well, in my time–I did most of my schooling in the 70s, finished high school in 1982–you were either smart or you were an athlete. You could only excel in one of those areas. Most of the smart kids were geeky and uncoordinated and glasses wearing. (Of course, there were exceptions, even then.) I declared my allegiance to the bookmobile early. I was in advanced academic classes, I read a lot, and I was clearly headed for university.

And if wasn’t fit, I was smart and well read. And I took solace in thinking ‘each to his own,’ jocks could have the fields behind the high school, I’d rule the library.

I thought, they were faster and fitter but I was smarter.

And that stereotype of athletes continues on. I certainly hear versions of it from faculty members talking about college athletes.

The only problem is that it’s false. Here’s a headline from the Huffington Post, Elite Athletes Have Better Thinking Skills Than University Students, Study Finds. According to the article, “A new study in the journal Scientific Reports shows that the brains of elite athletes have greater visual perceptual and cognitive abilities than those of non-athlete college students — that is, they’re better at learning to track objects moving at a fast speed.”

I knew that already about soccer players. I read lots of articles last spring like this one, Why Soccer Players Are Smarter than You.

Soccer players are significantly smarter than, well, pretty much everyone, according to a new study in PLoS ONE. When professional soccer players were tested on “executive function”—a key aspect in memory, multitasking, and creativity—they scored significantly higher than the general population. In fact, elite players belonged to the best 2 to 5 percent of the total population, says Predrag Petrovic, Ph.D., the lead researcher and professor at Karolinska Institute in Stockholm.

Here’s some quick thoughts.

First, I wonder how, or if, it’s different for different sports. In cycling for instance road races seem to require more smarts than time trials. The former takes strategy and the latter seems more like a battle of the fittest, a drag race. Though even the time trial takes psychological endurance, focus, and concentration.

Second, I wonder if the amount smarts matter for sports performance changes under different conditions. When cyclists are wearing headsets and taking direct orders from a team coach and strategist, is it still the case that the best are the smartest?

Third, I wonder about other connections between smarts and sports. Does the training boost academic performance or is it the other way round? Maybe it’s ask just genetic good luck. The folks who do well in one area are likely also to do well in the others. They’re just the best all round.

And fourth, maybe it shouldn’t be a shock that the best in any field are smarter than the rest of us. They’re the best after all.

Finally, I’m very happy to see the stereotypes change for my own children. I have a teenage son who hasn’t met a team sport be hasn’t liked. He plays rugby on the provincial boys team, football on his high school team, and basketball whenever wherever, six hours a day. He also lifts weights. He’s a member of the high school gifted class and hasn’t felt it hard, so far, to excel in both. Best yet, he’s not alone.

5 thoughts on “Top athletes aren’t just faster and fitter, they’re also smarter

  1. I have often thought that people who never played fast moving sports, never had the opportunity to become aware of their surroundings in a certain holistic manner, such that they could judge angles, anticipate others’ moves, and just instinctively know the “timing” of moves being made and moves to be made. In addition, playing fast moving sports improves one’s own body including reaction skills. It also trains you to react, such that you don’t panic but rather react as trained. Such “knowledge of the third kind” translates into other areas of your life. For example, I truly believe that it is what makes some people better drivers than others. Bad drivers usually cannot see beyond themselves and those in very close proximity to them, their “timing skills” are often terrible, and my guess is that they are prone to panic. Whether such knowledge (and reaction skills) though can contribute to improvement in any academic endeavours, I don’t really know.

  2. “smarter” is definitely not something I’d 100% agree = tracking objects moving at a fast speed” … but, you know, it is still a good and valuable skill. And the idea of “smarts” per se is, obviously, problematic anyway. It’s not surprising that people are good at what they are trained to do. A professional soccer player may be “smarter” in the sense cited above than your average graduate student in philosophy, but I can nearly guarantee that this has no bearing on soccer players’ ability to do philosophy.

  3. I agree with Nux to a certain degree. Intelligence is a problematic concept, to be sure. And soccer players are clearly not trained to be professional philosophers, nor are they necessarily gifted in the same manner as many professional philosophers. That said, the skills and discipline required to be a professional soccer player do seem to have some correlation with the skills and discipline required of high level executives in business settings, and that is both interesting, significant and to me anyway, something quite unexpected. One could obviously make really funny jokes about what this means about business executives in general, but this is actually quite fascinating if true.

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