Top football players have brains that are wired to anticipate the moves of their opponents, scientists have discovered.
It suggests that experienced players develop a mental ability that makes them less likely to fall for deceptive moves.
Scientists tested 39 footballers, ranging from semi-professionals to novices, who lay in a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) brain scanner while watching clips of an opposing team member dribbling the ball towards them.
When the oncoming player performed a deceptive manoeuvre, participants had to decide in which direction to move. At the same time, their brain activity was monitored.
Experienced football players were more attuned to the actions and deceptive ploys of the opponent than novices. Their performance was reflected in stronger activation of the brain's mirror neuron system (MNS) when predicting an opponent's actions.
The MNS is active not only when carrying out an action, but also when viewing the same action performed by others. There was clear evidence of greater brain recognition of opponents' movements among the more skilful players.
Brunel University's Dr Daniel Bishop, who led the research reported in the Journal of Sport & Exercise, said: "Our neuroimaging data clearly shows greater activation of motor and related structures in the brains of expert footballers, compared to novices, when taking part in a football-related anticipation task.
"We believe that this greater level of neural activity is something that can be developed through high quality training, so the next step will be to look at how the brain can be trained over time to anticipate the moves of opponents.
"Particularly following on from the Olympics, with more people being encouraged to take up sport, we hope that our findings can be used to refine and speed up training techniques to nurture the potential in budding young sports stars."