The Freakonomics blog had a fantastic post a little ways back about chess Grand Master Gary Kasparov that illuminates a lot about expert performance, and just how automatic it becomes after years of practice. The researchers were Fernand Gobet and Herbert Simon, and they used Kasparov to examine the nature of expertise:
Their subject was Gary Kasparov, chess champion of the world for 15 years (1985-2000). As world champion, he often demonstrated his skill by playing a “simul”: games of chess against several masters and grandmasters simultaneously. Kasparov would have to rotate between games. As soon as Kasparov reached a board, his opponent on that board had to make his or her move. Kasparov would then think for roughly 20 seconds before moving on to the next opponent and game. In contrast, his opponent would think for 3 minutes, until Kasparov’s return from cycling through the other games (typically six others).
At 20 seconds per move, Kasparov mostly used his perception and judgment of chess positions rather than his ability to calculate chess variations (the “I take, he takes, I take, etc.” kind of thinking). Thus, simultaneous chess is a real-life laboratory for measuring the value of perception. How well did Kasparov play, in comparison to his normal strength when playing at the usual tournament rate of 3 minutes per move? His normal strength at the time was 2750 on the Elo scale of chess skill. (To give a feel for the Elo scale, a beginner would be rated about 1000, an average tournament player is rated about 1600, a master is rated at 2200 or above, and a grandmaster is usually above 2400.)
The amazing result: At the rapid “simul” pace, Kasparov performed at a rating of 2650: higher than all but half a dozen players in the world! In other words, most of his world-class expertise comes from how he sees and looks at the chess board, not from his calculation ability. The traditional picture of the chess master as a calculating prodigy is bogus.
What we are learning about expertise in chess players, musicians and athletes is that expertise is very much about automaticity. Through years and years of practice, practice that actually causes physical changes to the brain, the types of things that normal people have to think about consciously get shifted to a kind of off-line processing that bypasses conscious thought. This expertise becomes ingrained so deeply, it has been demonstrated that making an expert in a sport consciously pay attention to a movement or process (a golfer putting, a baseball player swinging) actually gets in the way and decreases performance. Even in a game as cognitively demanding as chess, higher-order cognitive thought is just the icing on the cake. Kasparov is able to play like a grandmaster with his brain on auto-pilot.
Obviously it isn’t possible to run the same kind of experiment on athletes, but if you could theoretically drop a Chris Paul or Leo Messi into a whole bunch of different games in rapid succession, you would probably see similar results.