An Athlete’s Perception Skill Transfers To The Real World

By Dan Peterson

Boy Scouts just got some competition.  Now, when little, old ladies need to cross a busy street, they should find a well-trained athlete to do the job, according to University of Illinois researchers.

In a test of skill transfer, Laura Chaddock, a researcher at Illinois’ Human Perception and Performance lab, and her team pushed a bunch of college students out into busy traffic to see how well they could navigate the oncoming cars… well, sort of.

With the help of a virtual 3D environment called the CAVE, volunteer pedestrians can step into a simulated city street scene, seeing traffic whiz by on three surrounding screens, while walking on a synchronized treadmill.  Failure here does not end up in a trip the hospital, just a system reset.

Of the 36 college student participants, half were student-athletes for Illinois, an NCAA Division 1 university, representing a wide variety of sports, including cross-country running, baseball, swimming, tennis, wrestling, soccer and gymnastics. The other half were just regular students matched for similar age, GPA and video game prowess.

Chaddock hypothesized that the athletes would have the edge in street crossing given their training in busy, attention-demanding sport environments.  Previous studies have found that athletes outperform non-athletes on sport-specific tests of attention, memory, and speed.

“We predicted that an elite soccer player, for example, not only shows an ability to multitask and process incoming information quickly on a fast-paced soccer field by running, kicking, attending to the clock, noting the present offensive and defensive formations, executing a play, and finding open players to whom to pass” Chaddock wrote.  “He or she also shows these skills in the context of common real world tasks.”

When the students stepped into the CAVE, they encountered a busy city street with cars and trucks zooming by at 40-50 mph.  They were asked to cross the street when they thought it was safe, but could only walk briskly with no sprinting.  To make it more interesting, (and realistic), the students were also given an iPod to listen to music, then a cell phone with an incoming call to distract their attention even more.

The team was correct in its prediction as the athletes completed more successful crossings than non-athletes by a significant margin.  But it wasn’t because the athletes were faster (they were limited to walking) or because they displayed better agility or moves.  Maybe it was because their advanced “field vision” was able to scan the environment for patterns and opportunities to cross better than the untrained eyes of the other students.

“While efficiency of information processing may be one cognitive mechanism underlying athlete and non-athlete differences in street crossing performance,” Chaddock noted,  “additional research is needed to characterize other cognitive factors that play a role in the cognitively complex multitask paradigm that involves attention, speed, working memory and inhibition.”

One other finding of the study confirmed what is probably already obvious.  Students who were talking on the phone, both athletes and non-athletes, when crossing the street were much more likely to not make it to the other side.

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