Introduction: Rugby is one of the most tactically complex sports. Rugby coaching theory suggests that rugby players need to possess various cognitive abilities. A previous study claimed that rugby players have high visuospatial awareness, which is induced by a strategy described as taking a "bird's eye view."
Methods: To examine if there were differential cortical networks related to visuospatial processing tasks among top-level rugby players and control novices, we compared brain activities during a visuospatial processing task between 20 male top-level rugby players (Top) and 20 control novice males (Novice) using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). To avoid the effect of differential behavioral performances on brain activation, we recruited novices whose visuospatial ability was expected to match that of the rugby players. We adopted a 3-D mental rotation task during fMRI scanning as a visuospatial processing task.
Results: Significantly greater activations from baseline were observed for the Top group than for the Novice group in the right superior parietal lobe and lateral occipital cortex. Significantly greater deactivations from baseline were observed for the Top group than for the Novice group in the right medial prefrontal cortex.
Conclusions: The discrepancy between psychobehavioral outputs and the fMRI results suggested the existence of a cognitive strategy among top-level rugby players that differs from that among control novices. The greater activation of the right superior parietal lobe and lateral occipital cortex in top-level rugby players suggested a strategy involving visuospatial cognitive processing with respect to the bird's eye view. In addition, the right medial prefrontal cortex is known to be a part of the default mode networks, suggesting an additional cognitive load for the Top group when using the bird's-eye-view strategy. This further supported the existence of a specific cognitive strategy among top-level rugby players.