Impact of Sports Choice on Executive Brain Functions

Bjoern Krenn with a background of brain diagrams illustrating the impact of sports on cognitive functions.

Our understanding of human executive brain functions has deepened, especially in the realm of sports. Recent studies, like the one led by Bjoern Krenn, strive to unveil the relationship between cognitive processes and athletic performance. Let’s dive deeper.

Read more: Impact of Sports Choice on Executive Brain Functions

The Growing Interest in the Human Brain

The allure of understanding the brain’s role in our daily lives and sports is growing within the scientific community. Researchers deploy neuropsychological tests attempting to comprehend human and athlete behavior. However, existing studies often provide conflicting views on the nexus between cognition and sports achievements.

Dissecting Cognition and Sports Performance

Some experts argue that indulging in team sports or frequent video gaming does not impact cognitive abilities such as attention, memory, or intelligence. Conversely, chess masters and team sport professionals reportedly excel in pattern recognition compared to novices. Numerous studies gravitate towards basic cognitive functions, but Bjoern Krenn’s research hones in on executive skills.

Executive Functions & Their Role

Located in the prefrontal cortex of our brain, executive functions are pivotal in goal-setting, planning, prioritizing, decision-making, impulse control (inhibition), evaluation, and self-regulation. For instance, in tennis, players must focus on their opponent’s movements, suppress negative thoughts (inhibition), think tactically to unsettle the opponent (working memory), and quickly adapt their strategies (cognitive flexibility).

Sports Categories and Their Cognitive Impact

Krenn’s research delineates three sport categories:

  1. Static Sports: Archery, Climbing, Athletics, Gymnastics, Shooting, Skating, Swimming, Triathlon, Weightlifting.
  2. Interceptive Sports: Alpine Skiing, Badminton, Biathlon, Bobsled, Canoeing, Combat Sports, Modern Pentathlon, Mountain Biking, Skeleton, Ski Jumping, Tennis.
  3. Strategic Sports: Beach Volleyball, Fistball, Flag Football, Ice Hockey, Sailing, Volleyball.

The hypothesis is that athletes in strategic sports outperform in executive functions like inhibition, working memory, and cognitive flexibility due to the dynamic adjustments these sports require.

Krenn’s Research Findings

Participated by 184 elite Austrian athletes (110 men and 74 women averaging 23.2 years), the study employed the Flanker task and 2 back task to determine variations in executive skills. Results reveal stark differences between sport types. Strategic sports conferred greater advantages over static ones in average reaction times, inhibition, cognitive flexibility, and, to some extent, working memory.

Athletes from strategic sports have an edge in executive functions over static sport athletes and to some degree, interceptive sports. This accentuates the idea that sports choice can mold various executive functions.

Relevance to Broader Research

It’s intriguing how sports choice influences the executive system. Bjoern Krenn’s findings echo studies like that of Dutch researcher Lot Verburgh, who examined brain functions and soccer performance among elite youth players. Results from her study are mixed, with significant variations observed in motor inhibition. The practical relevance of these findings? They offer valuable insights for future training methodologies.

Krenn, B., Finkenzeller, T., Würth, S., & Amesberger, G. (2018). Sport type determines differences in executive functions in elite athletes. Psychology of Sport and Exercise,38, 72-79

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