How does Venus Williams return smashing serves? How does Josh Hamilton hit home runs off 90 mile-per-hour pitches?
It's not just talent: preparing to leap over a hurdle or dunk a basketball makes the brain process information differently. The athlete perceives it as a slowing down of time, say researchers at University College London after a new study.
"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. Nobuhiro Hagura from University College London's Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience told BBC News.
"Our guess is that during the motor preparation, visual information processing in the brain is enhanced. So, maybe, the amount of information coming in is increased. That makes time be perceived longer and slower."
The researchers tested the theory by asking subjects to react to flashing discs on a screen in two different ways: either to tap the screen, or just watch. The group that tapped the screen reported that there seemed to be more time between the flashes. And, the more prepared the participants were, the longer the time seemed to stretch.
That last finding leads the researchers to postulate that elite athletes may have a greater capacity to experience the perception than the general population.
Future experiments may include professional athletes, as well as an experiment to find the physiological mechanism that makes the phenomenon happen.
"We now want to do these behavior experiments again while measuring the participants' brain activity with electroencephalography," Hagura told BBC News. "We can then look at what is happening in the visual cortex during the action preparation period."