I have known for a very long time that athletes are better than non-athletes at making quick, complex decisions. I just didn't know why.
A new Discover article, The Brain: Why Athletes Are Geniuses, concludes that the brains of elite athletes are simply better at processing information and adapting to changes in circumstances.
I have long been able to tell which adults grew up playing sports by how quickly they maneuver through crowds and congested areas.
I recall one day when I was in a hurry to get to my office. I stopped at the local corner store for a cup of coffee for the ride to work. As I opened the door a woman I will call "Sue" followed me in, standing so close behind me that I could not open the door without bumping into her. We laughed a little as she realized her confusion. She seemed to have little clue as to how the door naturally opened out. Later, after I paid the cashier and turned towards the coffee dispensers, I again bumped into Sue, who apparently didn't see the direction in which the line was moving. Clearly, Sue was not anticipating movements or flow.
I proceeded to the self-serve coffee pots, following the natural flow, from getting the cup, to pouring the coffee, to pouring the milk and sugar, to putting the top on the cup and going back out the door. But, there, once again, was Sue, blocking the flow of people and sweetly apologizing to everyone she bumped into.
After I filled my coffee and turned towards the door to leave, I once again smashed right into Sue! I spilled a bit of my coffee and, by now, I was becoming very annoyed at her.
I recall thinking that perhaps the reason I could anticipate movement - and the reason, perhaps, that Sue could not - had to do with all the years I had being playing sports (field hockey, basketball, skiing, squash, lacrosse, tennis etc.), where anticipating body movement often made the difference between a positive and a negative outcome.
Perhaps it was the journalist in me, or maybe it was just that I was trying to figure out why Sue kept bumping into me, but I finally asked Sue if she played sports. She looked at me quizzically and replied, "Nope. Never was very athletic." Bingo.
Since my days as a young tennis and squash player my mantra in life has long been: "keep your eye on the ball, stay on your toes and have a backup plan." I am never amazed to hear that other athletes have a similar mantra.
Nice to know that there's now a scientific study that shows why!