Neurotacker and elite athletes: The key finding (& the sceptics)

Three years ago, Jocelyn Faubert published an article in Scientific Reports that revealed elite athletes to have an extraordinary ability in learning to track complex and dynamic scenes. Certainly this might seem logical, as elite athletes, particular those playing invasion sports (e.g., soccer, hockey, football), are constantly required to track complex and dynamic scenes.

So why has there been scepticism? Let’s begin by discussing Neurotacker.

Neurotracker

Faubert developed neurotracker as a method to train individuals to track complex and dynamic scenes. The task requires participants to watch multiple moving balls on a screen. The aim is to identify each ball after they have stopped moving. Task difficulty is manipulated by increasing the number of balls to be tracked and by increasing speed in which the balls are moving.

The study

308 participants completed the Neurotracker learning intervention. Of these participants, 102 were professional athletes. The athletes were recruited from the English Premier League (EPL), the National Hockey League (NHL) and the French Top 14 Rugby League (Top 14).  A further 173 were amateur athletes and the remaining 33 were non-athletes.

Results revealed that the elite athletes improved their ability to track the moving objects by a significantly faster rate than the amateur athletes and non-athletes. Moreover, the amateur athletes improved by a significantly faster rate than the non-athletes. Faubert interpreted this as evidence that elite athletes have an extraordinary ability in learning to track objects in dynamic scene.

Neurotracker results.png

Extracted from Faubert (2013)

 

Certainly the results appear to be compelling, especially given the large sample size. So why are a number of sport scientists sceptical?

The sceptic

One consistent finding about sport expertise that has emerged over the past two decades is that expertise is largely a product of sport-specific skill. For instance, for a while it was thought that basic visual functioning influenced perceptual-cognitive expertise in sport (e.g., decision making). However, we now know that this isn’t the case. Experts do not have superior visual functioning compared to non-athletes. Instead, experts have a superior ability to detect important cues in the environment that are specific to the sport and to identify situational probabilities given the context of a match.

Hence, sport scientists have been sceptical about the idea that experts have a superior ability in learning to track non-sport-specific objects in a dynamic display.

Nonetheless, we should not ignore the argument that experts have superior ability to learn.

Reference

Faubert, J. (2013). Professional athletes have extraordinary skills for rapidly learning complex and neutral dynamic visual scenes. Scientific Reports, 3, 1154.

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2 Comments on Neurotacker and elite athletes: The key finding (& the sceptics)

  1. Certainly this article in Nature enhanced Neurotracker’s profile.
    One simple explanation for the differences in initial score and learning rate is the difference in fitness levels… which as research is finding more and more relationships between fitness, exercise and cognition levels. Games played and level/speed of play are the key factors pointed to in this article, however fitness and cognition should not be ruled out.
    I can confirm all “elite athletes” were team sport athletes as in the article the researcher did not specify, just they were from NCAA and Spanish Olympic squads.
    The overarching theme in all Neurotracker research is that learning curve, as well as predictable performance differences between children, youth, adults, and senior citizens are often found. Differences in those with traumatic brain injuries & Parkinson’s also show significantly reduced cognitive-perceptual processing speed. I’ve found differences between positions in rugby league (play makers vs front row) and individual vs team sport athletes. Brains adapt to the demands of the environment… golfers rarely require this kind of dynamic attention, hence the lower scores compared to team sport athletes when tested.
    I’m currently writing up a from the field case study regarding an athlete who injured their MCL between the 1st & 2nd sessions of their Neurotracker training program and unlike virtually all other participants in the program who trend upwards and this study here, this athlete showed a downward curve for several weeks. The athlete’s wellness scores showed extreme stress between those sessions. It should be no surprise his cognitive-perceptual processing speed was reduced due to stress, lack of sleep, etc and that Neurotracker was sensitive to that.
    There’s a lot more to Neurotracker than this study. Happy to contribute to the dialogue.

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    • Thanks for sharing Robert. Your argument regarding athletes performing better higher initially due to fitness/exercise makes sense. I really like that area of research.

      No doubt the ability to track multiple objects is an important skill. I suppose the scepticism is targeted towards the transferability of neuortracker. i.e. do improvements on neurotracker enhance sports performance. I realise an article in PSE did attempt to answer this question with soccer players (have there been other papers too??). But for me to be convinced, I want to see an independent research team replicate this result.

      I think Faubert has done an impressive job developing neurotracker, including all subsequent research. But I don’t think i’m alone in saying that an independent research team needs to replicate the sports-transfer findings for it be considered a worthwhile investment for sports.

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