What the Scientists Say on the Subject

Dr. Lisberger, professor of neuroscience at the University of California at San Francisco, says the performance of elite athletes - and indeed all motor skills - starts in the head. He studies the brain mechanisms that generate accurate eye movements in response to our own motion or the motion of objects in the world.

"A lot of things go into making an elite athlete," says Robert E. Burke, chief of the Laboratory of Neural Control of the National Institute of Neurologic Diseases and Stroke. Muscle is part of your genetic endowment, he says, but it's "your brain that helps you use it."

"Hitting a baseball is one of the most complex tasks you can imagine, because you have to receive, interpret and respond to sensory information in perfect fashion," says V. Reggie Edgerton, professor of physiological science and neurobiology at University of California, Los Angeles.

In the 1980s, A. Terry Bahill of the University of Arizona at Tucson, and Robert Watts, of Tulane University, studied Brian Harper, a catcher who played in the World Series in 1985 and 1991. "We found that his smooth pursuit eye movements were about twice as fast as the literature said was possible," Dr. Bahill says. Whereas the literature said such eye movements could travel 70 degrees per second, Mr. Hunter's moved almost 140 degrees per second. World-class athletes, Dr. Bahill says, are distinguished by the "brain power to compute and predict where and when the ball is going to cross the plate."


In professional sports, everyone is gifted physically. Among the gifted, there is a distinct separation between the 98% who are merely exceptional and the 2% who are truly great. Laboratory tests of human reaction time prove it. It's always agonizing to inject science into sports, but the scientific truth is this: We're all wired a bit slower than we'd like. The time it takes to commit a quick action – a punch, a first step, a head fake – is roughly 100 milliseconds. The time it takes to counter the action – to try to block the punch, for instance – averages 200 milliseconds.
It was once proposed that Muhammad All's greatness was due to his remarkable reaction time. The time it took for him to respond to a punch thrown his way averaged 150 milliseconds. Phenomenal, but still not fast enough. If George Foreman threw a big right hand in 100 milliseconds and Ali didn't recognize it in advance, his 150-millisecond response time was worthless. It's something we all know instinctively, and science proves it: Mental speed is not only preferable in sports, it's essential. Physical gifts aren't enough.

ESPNMAG.com - Speed Freaks

U. of Oregon psychology professor Steven Keele has conducted laboratory tests on reaction times, using both visual and auditory stimuli. His results lead him to say, "If an athlete is reacting only to what he sees or hears, he's going to be too slow. Nobody would deny the importance of quickness in sports, but the quickest person in the world will be demolished every time if his cognitive skills aren't good. It's as simple as that."


What the High-Level Coaches Say on the Subject

"You've got million dollar legs and a nickel brain, but in the next six months we're going to do something about this!"

Herb Brooks, 1980 USA Olympic Team Head Coach

"Speed of hand, speed of foot, speed of mind -the most important of these is speed of mind!"

Anatoly Tarasov, Godfather of USSR Hockey

"Every play you make is successful or not depending upon your anticipation and preparation much more than your skill and determination, because everyone plays with skill and determination. As coaches, we can't possibly anticipate every decision and tell players in advance what to do in every situation. The puck can move much faster than the player, no matter how fast a skater. The player who senses what is going to happen next is going to be the best!"

Jack Blatherwick, Former Athletic Coach, US National Olympic Hockey Team

"Speed, as it is employed by the elite, carries an element of the extrasensory. We're all too slow, but the best of the best have figured out how to compensate for nature's deficiencies. They've learned how to cheat science."

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