Sports and physical exercise require mental effort, study finds

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A recent Ph.D. study by Henrik Herrebrøden at the University of Oslo challenges the commonly held belief that elite athletes perform tasks automatically, almost like “zombies.”

Instead, the research, which focused on rowers, suggests that elite athletes make intensive use of cognitive and attentional processes during performance.

Notably, elite rowers exhibited significantly larger pupil dilations, an indicator of focused attention, compared to recreational rowers.

Research Methodology

Herrebrøden conducted experiments with 18 rowers—nine from the Norwegian national team and nine recreational rowers.

The participants wore eye-tracking glasses to measure pupil size and blinking rates while they rowed on an ergometer. They also faced additional challenges, such as solving math problems, during some trials.

Key Findings

Pupil Dilation: The elite rowers showed greater pupil dilation than their non-elite counterparts. Increased pupil size can be an indicator of intense cognitive activity.

Single vs. Dual Tasking: When given math problems to solve while rowing, the rowers performed less efficiently, with more variable speed and shorter stroke lengths. This suggests that rowing is a cognitively demanding activity requiring focused attention.

Blinking Rates: During single-task rowing, some elite rowers did not blink for up to three minutes, possibly indicating intense concentration.

What It Means

Herrebrøden’s findings suggest a complex interplay between cognitive effort and physical performance.

Contrary to the belief that elite performance is automatic and thoughtless, elite athletes appear to be highly cognitively engaged during their performances.

Subjective vs. Objective Effort: Sometimes, athletes may not be consciously aware of the mental effort they are exerting, experiencing what is often termed as ‘flow.’ On the other hand, athletes may feel that they’re putting in a lot of effort when physiological measures suggest otherwise.

Attentional Processes in Elite Performance: Elite athletes might be engaged in highly nuanced cognitive processing, focusing on feedback from their bodies and contextual cues, making them more adaptable and effective in their sports.


The research could lead to a rethinking of how mental processes are understood in the realm of sports psychology and performance.

Coaches and athletes might benefit from incorporating cognitive training and attentional focus as key elements in their preparation routines.

Herrebrøden concludes that there’s much more to explore about the link between physiological characteristics and athletes’ cognition, as sports seem to make us “come alive” in complex ways.

The study paves the way for future research on the cognitive demands of elite sports performance.

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