Athletes Are Exceptionally Fast Visual Learners

Professional football, hockey, soccer and rugby players significantly better than amateurs or non-athletes at processing fast-moving, complicated scenes


Elite athletes aren’t just a cut above when it comes to speed, endurance and technique, but also in visual learning skills. Professional soccer, hockey and rugby players are significantly better than amateurs or the non-athletically inclined at processing fast-moving, complicated scenes, The Scientist reports, and practice only improves these skills for the pros.

Researchers gathered 51 soccer players, 21 hockey players and 30 rugby players from pro teams. They also recruited 173 elite amateurs from college-level teams and 33 non-athletes. The participants were told to watch a set of spheres running scattershot across a screen and to track a few select shapes with their eyes. In order to succeed, participants must divide their attention between many moving objects and keep watch over a large visual field—in other words, the work that athletes often need to do. The program automatically adjusts its speed to meet the skill level of participants.

The pros, it turned out, not only started at higher speeds but also showed the greatest improvement as they practiced the computer game. The amateurs, on the other hand, at first did not outperform the non-athletes, but did get better as they practiced.

“They were not necessarily better at doing this sort of thing to begin with but are better at learning to do it,” said Wilson, who suspects this indicates that athletes are better at visual learning because of their extensive training, as opposed to some innate visual ability. “Experience makes you a better learner, and this I think is a nice demonstration.”

Unfortunately for agents, computer games likely will not help to identify the next sports star, since tracking shapes on a screen does not necessarily translate into the ability to score goals.

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