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The Greatest Athletes' Secret Weapon? Their Brains

The soccer star Neymar
The soccer star Neymar
Carolina Muniz and Philippe Watanabe

SAO PAULO — The brains of highly trained athletes function more efficiently than others. Sports players activate only the parts of the cortex — the outer layer of the brain — necessary for specific movements like dribbles, tackles or saves such as those employed by soccer goalkeepers. "These athletes activate a smaller part of their brains but they use it a lot better," said Paula Fernandes, a sports psychologist at the University of Campinas.

Try to picture the brain as a supermarket. An elite athlete knows the exact location of the items he wants to buy. He can go to the right aisle and the right shelf directly, without looking around. An amateur might know in which aisle to look, but it's going to take him some time until he finds the exact spot. And he'll waste more energy.

Brazil's soccer superstar Neymar is among the few who have soccer shortcuts wired in their brains, according to findings published in Frontiers in Human Neurosciencein 2014. Using magnetic resonance imaging, Japanese scientists compared the brain of Neymar, who plays for FC Barcelona, to those of three Spanish second-league players — two swimmers and one amateur athlete. During the examination, they were all asked to move their feet as if they were dribbling past an opponent.

The experiment showed Neymar was activating a much smaller part of his cortex than the other professionals. Compared to the inexperienced athlete, the difference was even greater.

"A soccer star executes his movements in a natural, automatic way, which frees up space in his brain so he can think and act quicker during the game," explained neurologist Eiichi Naito who carried out the study. "His brain has adapted to the game and dedicates more neuronal resources to the anticipation of other players' actions."

Portuguese soccer star Cristiano Ronaldo can even score in the dark. It might sound like an exaggeration but he actually pulled it off during a test for a British TV show in 2011. The lights were switched off after the ball was kicked but Ronaldo was able to meet the ball by predicting the ball's path based solely on the kicker's movements.

"The athlete looks for clues the opponent gives away before executing an attack or defensive move. That way, he can anticipate them and act accordingly," explained Bruna Velasques, a neuroscientist at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro.

In the most physically challenging sports, victory and defeat can be a matter of milliseconds. In boxing, for instance, each move happens in about 0.08 seconds. That is faster than the blink of an eye. If a fighter simply waits for his opponent's punch to react, he would be knocked out soon.

"Boxing is a sport that requires a lot of intelligence," said Taynna Taygma, Brazil's top female boxer in the 60-kilogram category.

Years of intense training have transformed athletes' brains into a sort of data bank where all the moves they've learned during their careers are stored. The moment the brain perceives the opponent's move, it swiftly looks for the best way to overcome the obstacle.

"How do I find out where the other player is going to place the ball? It looks like I'm a ninja, right?" said tennis player Flávio Saretta, who won a gold medal in the 2007 Pan American Games. "It's the result of a lot of training and high-level playing."

Roger Federer's ability to read the game and surprise his opponents explains the Swiss national's exceptional career and achievements, said Saretta. "He almost never sweats on the court. He manages to guess where the ball will go and he anticipates it. You are left with the impression that wherever you play the ball, he'll be there to get it. It's a gift."

For the greatest sports players, it's a mix of talent and never-ending training. "They start practicing as children. The high number of repetitions provokes changes in the brain that improve their thought and ability," said Ricardo Arida, a neurophysiologist at the Federal University of São Paulo. The parts of the brain that are required for a specific sport therefore develop a higher quantity of neurons, thereby increasing gray matter. The same happens for professionals in other fields like music and dance.

But training alone is not enough. "Genetics also plays a part. In the end, even if many people start playing soccer from a young age, not everybody's going to turn into a Neymar," said Arida.

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