The More You Know What elite athletes have in common: their brains Athletes aren’t just faster, stronger, and better—they’re also smarter


Intelligence dominates athleticism on the fields, the courts, and the pools. Take pistol shooting, for example. It seems simple enough; doesn’t Virginia Thrasher, Olympic gold medalist in the 10m air rifle event, merely raise a gun and pull a trigger? No. In that split second she has to calculate the angle of her elbow, the contraction of her forearm muscles, the twitching of her wrist, and all this while struggling with the towering pressure of a nation’s dreams and the mental pitfalls an unfocused mind may impose on an athlete’s psyche.

According to researchers Reza Shadmehr of Johns Hopkins University and John Krakauer of Columbia University, the brain is like an adaptive muscle that molds a path to perfection through successes and failures. Shadmehr and Krakauer found that when the brain’s advised course of action turned out to be less than optimal, it revised—in other words, the brain is a fluid entity, capable of flexibility and forging new solutions to problems. In the process, unnecessary bridges between neurons are destroyed, accelerating the speed of thought.

This may be why the mantra “practice makes perfect” works so well for sports, not only because muscles develop with repetition but because each time a mistake is made the brain revises and creates neural pathways that are more effective and efficient in what they do. Athletes are, in essence, glorified problem-solvers—chess players who hit the gym, if you will.

According to “The Quest for the Perfect Athlete,” a documentary detailing the new role of neuroscience in athletics, the best weightlifters in the world can visualize their lifting routine in detail with little or no distracting activity in the other areas of their brains. Those who were unable to craft a mental image of their success did not perform as well physically—a phenomenon labeled as the forward model, or the ability of the body to mirror what is first created mentally.

This research is significant today because athletes are quickly approaching physical perfection in many sports. Maybe this is what’s most ironic about this phenomenon, the fact that traditional views of “jocks” and “nerds” are incorrect; that is, if the distinction between intelligence and mental capacity can be blurred. The brain is an untapped commodity that has the ability to confound researchers time and time again. Perhaps with this new field of research athletes can begin laying off the doping and hitting the research lab instead