Carl Zimmer’s got an interesting article over at Discover: Why Athletes Are Geniuses, about the ways in which highly skilled athletes’ brains differ from those of us ordinary folk.
Interesting stuff, though it’s one of those fields where the general conclusions seem obvious from anecdotal observations. All the years I’ve spent watching my daughters fence have made it utterly obvious that their brains have had to adapt to enable their progress. A beginning fencer is an ungainly mess, trying to pay attention to where her feet are and where they’re facing, to how she’s gripping her saber and which way her wrist is turned, to how her torso is placed, to whether her knees are bent enough, and to how to extend her arm in coordination with the movement of her feet—and oh, crap, the other fencer’s attacking right at me! What do I do now?!!
After ten years of fencing, my daughter doesn’t consciously consider all those details when she competes—her brain has consolidated the minutiae of her movements into large meta-motions, so to speak. She still works in drills and private lessons to keep her brain so well-trained, but she’s more likely to be conscious of something she does wrong than of what she does right.
What’s spooky to me is how much detail she can see when watching others fence. During those ten years she’s fenced, I’ve become a much better fencing spectator. But where I can finally see attacks and parries and beats, she sees that a fencer’s attack missed because the angle of her arm was a couple of degrees off or that a wrist was turned slightly the wrong direction. Because her brain knows what the whole should look like, her focus goes directly to the small details that are different from what they should be.
We spectators mostly have no clue how little we understand of what we see skilled athletes do.
(Oh, and if you want to see an example of that sort of cluelessness, check out this idiotic reaction to Zimmer’s Discover article.)