There’s a very cool study in the latest Nature Neuroscience that looks at how professional basketball players make predictions about whether or not a shot will go in. Obviously, this is a key skill, as being able to anticipate the position of a basketball gives players additional time to jostle for a rebound.
The experiment went like this: 10 basketball players, 10 coaches and 10 sportswriters, plus a group of complete basketball novices watched a video clip of a player attempting a free throw. (You can watch the videos here.) Not surprisingly, the players were significantly better at predicting whether or not the shot would go in. While they got it right more than two-thirds of the time, the non-playing experts (i.e., the coaches and writers) only got it right 44 percent of the time.
What allowed the professionals to make such accurate predictions? It seems that they were internally imitating the movement of the player on the television screen, and not simply making judgments based on the arc of the ball. (Unlike the coaches and writers, the players were able to make accurate predictions as soon as the ball left the hand, suggesting that they were “reading the body kinematics” of the person taking the shot.)
Furthermore, the experts also demonstrated increased activation in their motor areas, especially during missed shots. The scientists speculate that mirror neurons are involved, allowing professionals to to engage in a “covert simulation of the action”. In other words, when professional basketball players watch another player take a shot, mirror neurons in their pre-motor areas might light up as if they were taking the same shot. This automatic empathy allows them to predict where the ball will end up before the ball is even in the air.
The same researchers have also done some cool studies of expert tennis players.