This is How Athletes' Brains Work

Athlete's brains have sharper capabilities that tend to vary according to the activity they practice. However, the best athletes have one skill in common: their ability to react to stimuli.
This is How Athletes' Brains Work

Last update: 18 June, 2020

Most people admire more than one athlete. Their strength, their ability to react quickly, their vision, and strategy are simply fascinating. Athletes often deliver perfect performances that make them part of the elite. But, beyond their physical capabilities, how do athletes’ brains work? Is it different from that of a regular human being? 

Neuroscientists have posed this very question on more than one occasion. Interest in this topic arises from an undeniable fact: tennis players, gymnasts, motorcyclists, swimmers, soccer, or basketball players, all have amazing psychological capabilities. Their fascinating ability to make decisions under pressure stands out the most. 

Their mind and body function in perfect harmony and execute a series of cognitive processes so sophisticated that it’s inevitable to wonder what’s going on in the deepest part of their brains.

Perhaps they’re geniuses; gifted men and women who, almost absent-mindedly, have trained their brain as if it were just another muscle. Let’s see what science says about this.

A woman and a man out of breath.

How do athletes’ brains work?

A way to understand what the brain of an athlete is like is to compare it with that of a non-athlete. Scientists even make observations between elite athletes and those who don’t compete at a professional level.  An example of this is the research study conducted by the Anglia Ruskin University, in Cambridge, UK.

Doctor Camilo Saenz-Monteloano analyzed elite and amateur tennis players’ behaviors. He found, through MRIs, that the areas related to visual capabilities were more active. 

Their gaze and the ability to process information seem to be just another skill that professional tennis players develop with practice, which is an incredibly interesting fact.

With this information, it’s possible to conclude that it all depends on the physical activity that the athlete practices. Therefore, the brain of a gymnast won’t have the same capabilities as that of a rugby player. 

However, sports psychologists and neuroscientists agree that there are some elements in common. Let’s see what these elements are.

Athletes’ brains: ready for action

Something that stands out about professional athletes is their reaction time, as we pointed out before. Claudio Del Percio, professor at the Sapienza University of Rome, conducted a study in which he was able to explain this interesting skill. In fact, he found that athletes’ brains emit stronger alpha waves. 

What does this mean? It implies that even while resting, they’re alert. It also means that they can go into action in only a few seconds because their brains are trained and accustomed to respond quickly to any situation.

Improved neural connectivity

In order to understand how athletes’ brains work, you should have in mind what happens to this amazing organ when you practice any activity. Tasks such as learning a language or playing an instrument generate new connections. In fact, new neural links are formed and others become stronger in certain areas, especially those related to the activity you’re doing.

The brain of an athlete also generates new connections according to the sport they’re practicing. So, dedicating many hours and years to their training not just improves their physical endurance.

At the same time, due to the higher neural connectivity, it’s common that they’re more skilled in the following areas:

  • Planning and prediction (a tennis player, for example, knows how the ball will land depending on certain movements).
  • Pattern detection.
  • Improved analysis and reflection capabilities.
  • The ability to respond to several stimuli at the same time.

Athletes’ brains must be treated like a muscle

Athletes are great mental architects. Over time, they’ve learned to better understand how the mind works. In fact, they know exactly how to get the best out of it in order to improve their performance and self-confidence.

To understand how the brain of an athlete works, you must see it from the eyes of the athlete: it’s a muscle that must be trained every single day. Therefore, these professionals also understand that in order to be in the best shape possible, their brain needs rest, stimulation, challenges, and moments of silence to improve internal dialogue and to defeat fear, doubt and insecurities.

Furthermore, they know that the body has limits. Sometimes it isn’t possible to achieve certain goals due to past injuries or other physical factors. The mind, however, is infinitely malleable: it has no limits and no horizons. The brain has good plasticity, and that’s an advantage for athletes.

To conclude, the neural universe of athletes changes depending on the activity they practice. But what’s more important than that is their reaction capability and the ability to prepare for a new challenge every day. It’s, without a doubt, something worthy of admiration.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

  • Sáenz-Moncaleano, C. Gaze Behaviors During Serve Returns in Tennis. Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology. doi
    Tenenbaum, G., & Filho, E., Decision-Making in Sports: A Cognitive and Neural Basis Perspective.Reference Module in Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Psychology, 2017
  • Liu, S., & Tenenbaum, G., Research Methods in Sport and Exercise Psychology.Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Psychology, 2018

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.