Whether on the court, field or course, the body depends on the brain for direction. But the brain is a busy taskmaster, with duties beyond guiding motion, making it difficult to focus on that particular job. Like chess masters and virtuoso musicians, superior athletes are better than novices at turning on just the parts of the brain relevant to the desired task, Milton’s work reveals. “In professionals, the overall brain activation is much lower, but certain connections are enhanced,” he says. In other words, experts employ only the finely tuned neural regions that help enhance performance, without getting bogged down by extraneous information.
Elite athletes’ ability to focus the brain might even explain their struggle to eloquently describe performance after the game. Like a starship captain diverting power from life support to bolster shields in a battle, professional athletes temporarily shut down the memory-forming regions of the brain so as to maximize activity in centers that guide movement.
“That’s why they usually thank God or their moms,” says cognitive psychologist Sian Beilock of the University of Chicago. “They don’t know what they did, so they don’t know what else to say.”
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