Which sport has the smartest athletes

"Fool for elite sport: that's nonsense"

The German brain researcher and psychiatrist Manfred Spitzer thinks that the latest statements by swimming star Markus Rogan ("Good athletes don't have much on their minds") are "complete nonsense". In an interview with derStandard.at, he reveals why jogging is the best training for the brain and why he advocates physical education in the first lesson in school.

derStandard.at: Markus Rogan said in the Ö3 interview that good athletes don't have much on their minds. Are sport and mental performance mutually exclusive?

Sharpener: This is complete nonsense. We know that exercise at a very high level initially improves mental performance. Perhaps Rogan means something like: Only stupid can expect what a top athlete has to expect today, i.e. twelve hours of training a day. But what people understand is: Sport makes you stupid. And that's just not the case.

derStandard.at: How does exercise improve mental performance?

Sharpener: We know that, for example, nerve cells grow back more strongly during physical activity, even in adults. These nerve cells, which were only acquired through exercise, break down again when they are not needed. You have to use them through complex tasks because if you just do simple tasks, they break after three weeks. It is therefore very important that physical and mental performance go hand in hand. Because both together have the effect that there are more nerve cells in the brain.

derStandard.at: So exercise is good brain training?

Sharpener: To put it bluntly: The best brain jogging is jogging. But you have to do something with your brain afterwards.

derStandard.at: Is it an advantage for athletes if you can "switch off your brain", as Markus Rogan says?

Sharpener: Competitions often involve tenths and hundredths of a second. As an athlete, when you are burdened with problems or think about something complex, it costs energy and disrupts the brain when programming movements. But I wouldn't talk about brain shutdown. Meditation artists don't say they turn off their brains, but that they want to keep the mind open and try to eliminate distractions. That is something that the athlete must also be able to do.

derStandard.at: Are agonizing questions and fear of competition a sign of intelligence?

Sharpener: Agonizing questions are not a sign of intelligence. And fear has the function of blocking out everything in our brain. Anyone who is afraid is not creative, so they do not have many different ideas, but concentrate on the essentials. Fear blocks mental performance. But that has nothing to do with intelligence, because intelligence provides us with many different solutions.

derStandard.at: What does the ideal athlete look like now?

Sharpener: I'm sorry for a competitive athlete who has nothing but his sport in mind. Even as an athlete, you are still a person and a well-rounded individual who is competent in various areas. I wouldn't say that one of the goals of a competitive athlete is to become a complete idiot because then he swims or runs particularly quickly. An athlete definitely benefits from thinking. If possible, he shouldn't think during his performance. But then to conclude that we need a complete idiot for high-performance sport, I think that's nonsense.

derStandard.at: How important do you think physical education is in schools?

Sharpener: In sport, skills such as concentration, endurance, sticking to it and self-confidence are trained. A student has to learn that first. And he does not learn that by integrating, but in subjects such as sports, but also music and theater. There he learns self-control and trust, and that is what he needs in every school subject. That is why sport is something very important.

derStandard.at: So sport can also improve school performance?

Sharpener: American studies show that if students do sport in the first lesson, they do much better overall in school. Exercise has very positive effects on school performance. To leave it out and say we only need mental training in schools is gross nonsense. Half an hour or three quarters of an hour of exercise every day at all schools would significantly improve learning success. (Sarah Dyduch, derStandard.at, 1.8.2012)

Manfred Spitzer (54) studied medicine, psychology and philosophy in Freiburg, where he also completed his habilitation in psychiatry. He was a senior physician in Heidelberg and taught at Harvard, and in 2004 he founded the Transfer Center for Neuroscience and Learning at Ulm University.