How Jocks and Mathletes Are Alike

Sarah Zhang in Nautilus:

From bulging biceps to 7-foot wingspans to a striking paucity of fat, elite athletes’ bodies often look quite different from those of the rest of us. But it’s not only athletes’ bodies that are different; their brains are just as finely tuned to the mental demands of a particular sport. Here are seven areas of the brain that enable seven different athletes to pull off extraordinary feats.

Winning a Battle of Wills

When the 1988 World Series started, Kirk Gibson, the best hitter on the underdog Los Angeles Dodgers, had injured both legs. He wasn’t even supposed to play. But at a key moment in Game 1, he was nevertheless called to pinch hit. He promptly took on one of a baseball player’s most challenging jobs: getting inside the head of the opposing pitcher. It was the bottom of the ninth, and the Dodgers were down by one, with a runner on base and two outs. Dennis Eckersley, one of the greatest closers in baseball history, was pitching. The count on Gibson went to three balls and two strikes. Douglas recalled a bit of advice from Mel Didier, a Dodgers scout. “Now remember, and don’t ever forget this, if you’re up in the ninth inning and we’re down or it’s tied and you get to 3-and-2 against Eckersley,” said Didier retelling the conversation later in ESPN, “Partner, sure as I’m standing here breathing, you’re going to see a 3-2 backdoor slider.” Sure enough, a slider came breaking toward Gibson. He swung awkwardly, unable to use his legs, but he had the advantage of knowing exactly what pitch was coming. The ball sailed into the stands in right field. The Dodgers won the game and, eventually, the series.

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