They impress on the sports field with their rapid reactions and fancy footwork, but do athletes’ abilities translate to the real world? Past research on this topic, nearly all of it lab-based, has demonstrated superior performance by athletes on sport-specific and basic psychological tests, such as of attention and processing speed. Now Laura Chaddock and her colleagues have shown that the athletic advantage translates to an everyday task – crossing a busy road, albeit that this was tested using an immersive virtual reality treadmill.
Eighteen male and female athletes (including football players, swimmers and tennis players; all Division 1 performers at university) and 18 non-athletic, healthy controls, all donned virtual reality goggles and walked on a treadmill to cross a simulated eight-metre wide, two-lane road – a multi-faceted task requiring skilled attentional processing and coordination. The two participant groups were matched for academic ability, age, height, weight and video-game experience.
The cars on the road travelled with a simulated speed of 40 to 55 miles an hour. There was no safe zone to stop in the middle and no opportunity to walk backwards or sideways, so once participants had made a decision to cross, they had to go through with it. Their challenge was to get to the other side within thirty seconds, without being hit. To spice things up, two distraction conditions required the participants to conduct a conversation on a hands-free kit or listen to their favoured music on an ipod as they crossed the road. The participants also had their reaction times tested in a basic computer task.
The take-home finding is that overall the athletes out-performed the non-athletes: they crossed successfully on 72 per cent of trials compared with the non-athletes’ success rate of 55 per cent. However, this superiority didn’t apply when only the distraction conditions were considered – the researchers think this is because the distraction of a complex conversation isn’t a part of most sports. The athletes were also faster at the simple reaction time task and statistical analysis suggested this factor accounted for their superiority at road crossing.
‘Our results suggest that cognitive skills trained in sport may engender transfer to performance on everyday challenges,’ the researchers said. ‘To provide a sport-specific example, it is plausible that an elite soccer player not only shows an ability to multitask and process incoming information quickly on a fast-paced soccer field … he or she also shows these skills in the context of real world tasks.’ However, Chaddock’s team conceded that their cross-sectional design means they have yet to demonstrate that playing a sport causes these advantages – it could plausibly be that people with these skills are more likely to take up a sport.
Chaddock, L., Neider, M., Voss, M., Gaspar, J., and Kramer, A. (2011). Do Athletes Excel At Everyday Tasks? Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise DOI: 10.1249/MSS.0b013e318218ca74