Commentary

Magazine: Athletes are wired differently

Originally Published: March 2, 2010
By Scoop Jackson | Page 2

BrainAP Photo

So Discover magazine did this study where it looked at something many thought never existed: an athlete's brain.

Seriously.

I know you want to laugh, but this is legit.

Imagine how I felt opening a magazine thinking I was going to dive deep into the cover story on three new radical theories that challenge Einstein, only to find myself reading about karate champions' sleep patterns and split-second decisions made by Derek Jeter.

For over two years, Reza Shadmehr of Johns Hopkins University and John Krakauer of Columbia University studied how world-class athletes think (and react) differently than the rest of us. From their various methods of researching and collecting data from neuroscientists and electric stimulation, conclusions were drawn that not only are athletes' actions "much more than a set of automatic responses," but their "brains can find better solutions than ours do."

Seriously.

I know you want to stop reading, but give me a minute. I want to convince you that the study has a merit.

See, the problem is not in the solutions found, but in the cynicism outside the science world that makes it virtually impossible to believe that Kobe deciding whether to pull up from 3 or go to the hole is worth scientists from Rome, Australia, and the United States trying to figure out why he did one and not the other. It's not that serious.

Seriously, it is.

At least it was for them. And now they pulled me in.

Because from now on -- after reading the article -- I'm going to look differently at sports and those that perform it exceptionally well at the highest level.

The LeBrons, the Usains, the Peytons, the Federers, the Sidney Crosbys, the Kim Yu-Nas. No longer will I just be watching them for fun; it's all analytical from here on out.

Every time Roy Halladay decides to throw a slider instead of a cutter, I'm going to wonder: What part of his primary motor cortex made him decide at the last minute which one to throw? Damn the pitch count or the batter he's facing; I now know for the rest of my life that none of that matters. His superiority comes from his ability to not allow heavy taxing on his prefrontal cortex, not the fact that he can keep .350 hitters guessing like Tracy Morgan on celebrity "Jeopardy!"

Message to all sports fans: If you love sports for the beauty of sports, for the athletic brilliance and everything that comes with it, don't read this article! Nothing against Carl Zimmer's column ("The Brain"), but it will ruin sports for you. It will have you turn Jeter into Galileo, Nicklaus into Newton.

It will have you trying to intellectualize Mike Tyson.

Those faux "Big Bang Theory"/Sheldon Cooper wannabes at Discover just did the one thing that was never supposed to be done with sports: They discovered proof that athletes are possibly smarter than the spectators.

Now they've got me believing that's the new truth. Like ESPN missed its "SportsCentury" on Freud.

Now I've got to pretend to be smart, because apparently the players on the court are all geniuses and "more efficient" in thought than I'll ever be.

All that time in the classroom, all that time in the library, all that studying of theories and theorems, all that tuition I'm still paying back. All for nothing.

I used to worry about intellectually out-debating Skip Bayless on TV. Now they're telling me I've got to worry about Ochocinco.

Seriously?

Scoop Jackson is a columnist for ESPN.com.


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ESPN.com columnist