Professional goalkeepers in football are quicker at processing information from different senses than players in other positions, which could explain why they are so good at making split-second decisions on the field.
David McGovern at Dublin City University in Ireland and his colleagues wondered if goalkeepers’ unique role meant that they perceived the world differently to the rest of the team. “Goalkeepers have to make decisions quickly with limited information,” he says.
To investigate, they recruited 20 professional goalkeepers, 20 outfield players and 20 people who didn’t play professional football, all of whom were men.
Each participant was shown one or two images flashed briefly on a screen, followed by one, two or zero beep sounds. Typically, when one flash and two beeps are shown in close succession, people mistakenly assume that there were two flashes – a sign that the visual and auditory stimuli have been combined. As the time between the flash and the beep increases, however, the illusion gets weaker.
The researchers found that goalkeepers could accurately determine the number of flashes and beeps at much smaller time intervals between them, compared with other football players and non-players. This means that goalkeepers can more precisely and more rapidly process multisensory cues, says McGovern.
It also reveals that goalkeepers are much better at segregating the way they process auditory and visual information, which makes sense for their function on the field, he says. When a corner is being taken and they are surrounded by players, for example, their view of the ball may be restricted, so they might have to rely on auditory information more than usual.
A better understanding of the psychology of these players could improve their on-field performance and prevent injuries, says McGovern, but we don’t yet know why they have this perceptual quirk.
“Whether goalkeepers’ enhanced multisensory ability has got to do with their training or whether it’s an innate ability is something we hope to find out,” he says.