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Athletes' mad skills may translate to everyday tasks -- like dodging cars

March 25, 2011|By Jeannine Stein, Los Angeles Times

We know that being involved in athletics has a host of healthful benefits. Among them, according to a new study, may be the ability to dodge cars.

Researchers from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign set up a virtual reality street crossing scene to see if the skills athletes acquire during training and play translate to everyday tasks and if those skills are superior to those of non-athletes.

The small study included 18 athletes and 18 non-athletes, all college-age. The athletes were involved in some form of NCAA Division I sport, such as baseball, cross-country running, gymnastics, soccer or swimming.

All study participants were immersed in an interactive street-crossing video program in which they had to cross a street while avoiding cars traveling from 40 to 55 mph on a two-way street. Walking on a treadmill simulated crossing the street, but the participants could only go forward and couldn't run. They either crossed safely or got hit by a car; there was no "safe zone" in which they could wait until cars passed.

Sound like fun so far? The study subjects were also tested on their ability to multitask: In addition to crossing the street with no distractions, they also had to do it while talking on a hands-free cellphone and while listening to music through headphones.

Athletes did significantly better than non-athletes at crossing the street under all distraction situations. Athletes also had superior reaction times. Collision rates among athletes with no distractions was 22.9%, and for non-athletes it was 38.5%. Collision rates among athletes while talking on the phone was 25%, and for non-athletes it was 37.5%.

The authors wrote that "it is plausible that an elite soccer player not only shows an ability to multitask and process incoming information quickly on a fast-paced soccer field by running, kicking, attending to the clock, noting the present offensive and defensive formations, executing a play, and finding open players to whom to pass; he or she also shows these skills in the context of real world tasks. Our results suggest that cognitive skills trained in sport may engender transfer to performance on everyday challenges."

The study was published online recently in the journal Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise.

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