It turns out elite athletes aren’t just physically gifted — they may also have a special set of mental capabilities that allows them to achieve greatness, too.

Previous research revealed sports stars have an enhanced ability to evaluate probabilities, recognize patterns and use information from peripheral vision. And a new Swedish study that tested the cognitive abilities of professional soccer players further revealed the higher-echelon players scored better than their less successful counterparts, with both groups besting the general public.

In particular, scientists in the most recent research looked at the brain’s executive function, which is involved in working memory tasks like tying your shoes. It’s also involved in creativity, multi-tasking and inhibition.

So how does all that come into play for athletes?

“The successful player must constantly assess the situation, compare it to past experiences, create new possibilities, make quick decisions to action, but also quickly inhibit planned decisions,” the authors write.

Does playing help develop the necessary cognitive abilities, or are they there already, thus making those people better players to start with? Study co-author Predrag Petrovic of the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm believes the latter is true, saying the elite players wouldn’t have been able to excel without those inherent mental skills.

But Mark Williams, professor of motor behavior at Liverpool John Moores University in the United Kingdom, has his doubts, pointing out that since studies have shown cognitive abilities can be tied to aerobic capacity, the physical fitness of the athletes might be responsible for their elevated scores.

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