The study of 87 top-ranked Brazilian volleyball players, some of them medalists in the Beijing and London Olympics, and 67 of their nonathletic contemporaries also found that being an athlete minimized the performance differences that normally occur between women and men.
Female athletes were more like their male peers in the speed of their mental calculations and reaction times, while nonathletic females performed the same tasks more slowly than their male counterparts.
Overall, the athletes were faster at memory tests and tasks that required them to switch between tasks. They were quicker to notice things in their peripheral vision and to detect subtle changes in a scene. And in general, they were better able to accomplish tasks while ignoring confusing or irrelevant information.
Female athletes had significant cognitive advantages over their nonathletic counterparts, advantages that minimized the subtle speed differences between them and the men. The female athletes were faster than their nonathletic peers at detecting changes in a scene and could more quickly pick out relevant details from a distracting background. Their performance on these and the other tasks was on par with the male athletes, whereas nonathletic males consistently outperformed their female peers.
"I think we have learned that athletes are different from us in some ways," said University of Illinois psychology professor and Beckman Institute Director Arthur Kramer, who led the study with graduate student Heloisa Alves. "We found that athletes were generally able to inhibit behavior, to stop quickly when they had to, which is very important in sport and in daily life. They were also able to activate, to pick up information from a glance and to switch between tasks more quickly than nonathletes. I would say these were modest differences, but they were interesting differences nonetheless."
Non-athletes excelled at only one of the cognitive tests the researchers administered. In this test, called the stopping task, participants were asked to type a "Z" or "/" key as soon as they saw it on a computer screen – unless they heard a tone shortly after the character appeared, in which case they were told to refrain from responding. Non-athletes tended to be faster in cases where the tone never sounded, while athletes were better at inhibiting their responses after hearing a tone. The ability to inhibit a response is one marker of what brain researchers call "executive function," the capacity to control, plan and regulate one's behavior[.]