Basketball Players Reaching for the Ball (Photo by Dimitri Iundt/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images)
Science

Athletes are right: The game really does slow down for them

Players talk about being in the zone, or time slowing down, when the game seems easy. (Photo by Dimitri Iundt/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images)

In sport, it’s one of the many go-to phrases for an athlete coming off of a stellar performance.

“The game slowed down.”

The statement has a certain impression at face value – the game felt easy for the player, maybe, or the athlete just got lost in a moment, not thinking about the attention or implications that would follow.

“This year, I think the game has definitely slowed down for me,” Oakland Raiders safety Karl Joseph told NBCSports.com on the adjustment from his rookie year to his second year. “I’m understanding the little things.”

Physiologically, this phenomenon exists. The game appears slower due to the amount of information being processed by the brain at an enhanced rate. It’s speculated by researchers at University College London that the sensation of time slowing, or enhanced reaction time, is felt even more so with elite athletes.

Researchers call it “flow.” Flow is an optimal psychological state that typically occurs when there is a balance between the perceived challenges of a situation and a person’s skills or capabilities for action. Flow experiences are accompanied by an order in consciousness, whereby the athlete has clear goals, concentrates on the task, receives unambiguous feedback and feels in control of the performance.

Losing track of the clock — whether time speeds up or slows down — is a typical characteristic of the flow experience according to Jay C. Kimiecik and Gary Stein. “When in flow, time does not pass the way it ordinarily does; it is distorted by the experience.”

Dr. Nobuhiro Hagura of UCL’s Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience conducted an experiment that involved volunteer’s reaction time with flashing images on a screen. In order to gauge the effect of both physical action on reaction time and the benefits that may have, Hagura’s group had some of the subjects tap the screen when the image flashed and others simply view the screen with no physical action.

The study showed that subjects who were asked to tap the screen when the image flashed reacted to the images faster.

"John McEnroe has reported that he feels time slows down as he is about to hit the ball, and F1 drivers report something very similar when overtaking," Dr. Hagura told BBC News.

Erika Carlson feels that muscle memory also comes into play, even subtly, due to the speed at which the games take place.

“We can't process information to actively think, well, what am I seeing? What adjustments can I make? How should I do that?” Carlson, a sports psychologist based in San Francisco, told  Pacific Standard. “That's absolutely pattern recognition. Their brain has literally mapped it so they can instantly recognize what's coming at them.”

Why does this perception happen? There is a belief that the effect is a product of how well the brain processes what the eyes are seeing. Hagura plans on conducting further tests to pinpoint the true cause.

"We now want to do these behavior experiments again while measuring the participants' brain activity with electroencephalography,” Dr. Hagura told BBC News. “We can then look at what is happening in the visual cortex during the action preparation period.”

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