Think of Brazil, then think of a sport. Most of us would respond with soccer, or “futebol” in Portuguese, thanks to their five World Cup victories and national obsession with the sport. However, over the last 12 years, Brazilian volleyball has dominated the world. The men’s national team is currently ranked first in the world and has won a gold and two silver medals in the last three Olympics. The women’s team has back to back Olympic gold medals, beating the U.S. in Beijing and London, and is currently ranked second in the world.
So, when University of Illinois psychology professor Arthur Kramer wanted to find out more about how elite athletes take in and process visual information, it wasn’t surprising that he and his team visited the starting place for all aspiring Brazilian netters, the Center for the Development of Volleyball (CDV – Saquarema), in Rio de Janeiro.
There he found 87 of the best men and women players, both adults and juniors, including some of those Olympic medalists, to test their visual and cognitive abilities. The adult players were in their early 20’s with an average of 10 years of volleyball training. With an average age of 16, the junior players had received about 5 years of formal training. For comparison, 67 non-athletes with similar ages and general education were used as a control group.
There are two competing schools of thought for studying the cognitive differences between athletes and non-athletes; the expert performance approach and the component skills approach. Research using the expert performance method tries to look at mental tasks using sport-specific domains. For example, to see if an elite volleyball player has better peripheral vision than an amateur, they might be asked to view a volleyball court with moving players while being tested on their reaction time to changes. Sport scientists feel this is a more relevant test of differences gained by years of training.
The component skills approach removes the sports context from the experiment and tries for a more general comparison of perceptual and cognitive tasks. This helps to find out if the athlete’s advantage is at a core, fundamental level, not influenced by a sports environment.
Kramer’s team, using a computer based set of tests, chose the component skills method with three main cognitive categories included; executive control, memory and visuo-spatial. First, in this context, executive control means being able to keep two different tasks and instructions in mind and switching back and forth between them, similar to being able to switch between an offensive and defensive mindset during a volleyball match. Also, the players were tested on being able to quickly stop a task when new information popped up. On the court, think of having a play or counterattack in mind, then having to instantly change that plan based on the other team’s actions.
Next, short term memory was tested by first showing a group of shapes, followed by just one shape. The test group had to quickly decide if that single shape was in the original group. Finally, their spatial awareness was put to the test by seeing a series of different, frequently changing scenes and being asked to quickly detect and track the changes.
As expected, the results showed that the elite players, both adult and juniors, were better than the control group on all but one of the tests. Their ability to switch between tasks, store objects in memory and track moving objects were significantly better than the non-athletes. While past research had shown signs of this superiority, Kramer’s experiment was important because it expanded the results to a larger test pool, including men and women and different age group/training levels.
In fact, the women athletes performed just as well as the men athletes, which is interesting since non-athlete men easily outperformed non-athlete women.
“We found that athletes were generally able to inhibit behavior, to stop quickly when they had to, which is very important in sport and in daily life, “ Kramer said. “They were also able to activate, to pick up information from a glance and to switch between tasks more quickly than nonathletes.”
The study appears in Frontiers of Movement Science and Sport Psychology.
Of course, the gold medal question is if athletes are better because of their training or because of some innate advantage they’ve had since birth? The Brazilian volleyball program hopes to answer this over time by taking baseline tests of kids in school before they are exposed to the years of structured training.
Kramer’s educated bet is on a combination. “Our understanding is imperfect because we don’t know whether these abilities in the athletes were ‘born’ or ‘made,’ ” he said. “Perhaps people gravitate to these sports because they’re good at both. Or perhaps it’s the training that enhances their cognitive abilities as well as their physical ones. My intuition is that it’s a little bit of both.”
With the 2016 Olympics on home court in Rio de Janeiro, the Brazilians are gearing up for what could be their best Games ever and a three-peat for the women. Here are highlights from last summer’s gold medal match.