Action anticipation and motor resonance in elite basketball players

Article metrics


We combined psychophysical and transcranial magnetic stimulation studies to investigate the dynamics of action anticipation and its underlying neural correlates in professional basketball players. Athletes predicted the success of free shots at a basket earlier and more accurately than did individuals with comparable visual experience (coaches or sports journalists) and novices. Moreover, performance between athletes and the other groups differed before the ball was seen to leave the model's hands, suggesting that athletes predicted the basket shot's fate by reading the body kinematics. Both visuo-motor and visual experts showed a selective increase of motor-evoked potentials during observation of basket shots. However, only athletes showed a time-specific motor activation during observation of erroneous basket throws. Results suggest that achieving excellence in sports may be related to the fine-tuning of specific anticipatory 'resonance' mechanisms that endow elite athletes' brains with the ability to predict others' actions ahead of their realization.

Access options

Rent or Buy article

Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.


All prices are NET prices.

Figure 1: Behavioral data from experiment 1.
Figure 2: Corticospinal activation during observation of basket and soccer actions.
Figure 3: Corticospinal activation during observation of IN and OUT basket shots.
Figure 4: Kinematic analysis of upper and lower limb angle joints.


  1. 1

    Abernethy, B. Expertise, visual search and information pick-up in squash. Perception 19, 63–77 (1990).

  2. 2

    Allard, F., Graham, S. & Paarsalu, M.E. Perception in sport: basketball. J. Sport Exerc. Psychol. 2, 14–21 (1980).

  3. 3

    Williams, A.M. & Davids, K. Visual search strategy, selective attention and expertise in soccer. Res. Q. Exerc. Sport 69, 111–128 (1998).

  4. 4

    Starkes, J.L. Skill in field hockey: the nature of the cognitive advantage. J. Sport Exerc. Psychol. 9, 146–160 (1987).

  5. 5

    Starkes, J.L. & Allard, F. Perception in volleyball: the effects of competitive stress. J. Sport Exerc. Psychol. 5, 189–196 (1983).

  6. 6

    di Pellegrino, G., Fadiga, L., Fogassi, L., Gallese, V. & Rizzolatti, G. Understanding motor events: a neurophysiological study. Exp. Brain Res. 91, 176–180 (1992).

  7. 7

    Gallese, V., Fadiga, L., Fogassi, L. & Rizzolatti, G. Action recognition in the premotor cortex. Brain 119, 593–609 (1996).

  8. 8

    Rizzolatti, G., Fadiga, L., Gallese, V. & Fogassi, L. Premotor cortex and the recognition of motor actions. Brain Res. Cogn. Brain Res. 3, 131–141 (1996).

  9. 9

    Rizzolatti, G., Fogassi, L. & Gallese, V. Neurophysiological mechanisms underlying the understanding and imitation of action. Nat. Rev. Neurosci. 2, 661–670 (2001).

  10. 10

    Fogassi, L. et al. Parietal lobe: from action organization to intention understanding. Science 308, 662–667 (2005).

  11. 11

    Hari, R. et al. Activation of human primary motor cortex during action observation: a neuromagnetic study. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA 95, 15061–15065 (1998).

  12. 12

    Rizzolatti, G. et al. Localization of grasp representations in humans by PET. 1. Observation versus execution. Exp. Brain Res. 111, 246–252 (1996).

  13. 13

    Grafton, S.T., Arbib, M.A., Fadiga, L. & Rizzolatti, G. Localization of grasp representations in humans by positron emission tomography. 2. Observation compared with imagination. Exp. Brain Res. 112, 103–111 (1996).

  14. 14

    Decety, J. et al. Brain activity during observation of actions. Influence of action content and subject's strategy. Brain 120, 1763–1777 (1997).

  15. 15

    Iacoboni, M. et al. Cortical mechanisms of human imitation. Science 286, 2526–2528 (1999).

  16. 16

    Buccino, G. et al. Action observation activates premotor and parietal areas in a somatotopic manner: an fMRI study. Eur. J. Neurosci. 13, 400–404 (2001).

  17. 17

    Fadiga, L., Fogassi, L., Pavesi, G. & Rizzolatti, G. Motor facilitation during action observation: a magnetic stimulation study. J. Neurophysiol. 73, 2608–2611 (1995).

  18. 18

    Romani, M., Cesari, P., Urgesi, C., Facchini, S. & Aglioti, S.M. Motor facilitation of the human cortico-spinal system during observation of bio-mechanically impossible movements. Neuroimage 26, 755–763 (2005).

  19. 19

    Calvo-Merino, B., Glaser, D.E., Grezes, J., Passingham, R.E. & Haggard, P. Action observation and acquired motor skills: an fMRI study with expert dancers. Cereb. Cortex 15, 1243–1249 (2005).

  20. 20

    Buccino, G. et al. Neural circuits involved in the recognition of actions performed by nonconspecifics: an fMRI study. J. Cogn. Neurosci. 16, 114–126 (2004).

  21. 21

    Calvo-Merino, B., Grezes, J., Glaser, D.E., Passingham, R.E. & Haggard, P. Seeing or doing? Influence of visual and motor familiarity in action observation. Curr. Biol. 16, 1905–1910 (2006).

  22. 22

    Cross, E.S., Hamilton, A.F. & Grafton, S.T. Building a motor simulation de novo: observation of dance by dancers. Neuroimage 31, 1257–1267 (2006).

  23. 23

    Cross, E.S., Kraemer, D.J., Hamilton, A.F., Kelley, W.M. & Grafton, S.T. Sensitivity of the action observation network to physical and observational learning. Cereb. Cortex published online, doi:10.1093/cercor/bhn083 (30 May 2008).

  24. 24

    Rizzolatti, G. & Craighero, L. The mirror-neuron system. Annu. Rev. Neurosci. 27, 169–192 (2004).

  25. 25

    Jeannerod, M. Neural simulation of action: a unifying mechanism for motor cognition. Neuroimage 14, S103–S109 (2001).

  26. 26

    Giese, M.A. & Poggio, T. Neural mechanisms for the recognition of biological movements. Nat. Rev. Neurosci. 4, 179–192 (2003).

  27. 27

    Vogt, S. & Thomaschke, R. From visuo-motor interactions to imitation learning: behavioral and brain imaging studies. J. Sports Sci. 25, 497–517 (2007).

  28. 28

    Casile, A. & Giese, M.A. Nonvisual motor training influences biological motion perception. Curr. Biol. 16, 69–74 (2006).

  29. 29

    Nielsen, J.B. & Cohen, L.G. The olympic brain. Does corticospinal plasticity play a role in acquisition of skills required for high-performance sports? J. Physiol. (Lond.) 586, 65–70 (2008).

  30. 30

    Hodges, N.J., Williams, A.M., Hayes, S.J. & Breslin, G. What is modeled during observational learning? J. Sports Sci. 25, 531–545 (2007).

  31. 31

    Farrow, D. & Abernethy, B. Do expertise and the degree of perception-action coupling affect natural anticipatory performance? Perception 32, 1127–1139 (2003).

  32. 32

    Abernethy, B. & Zawi, K. Pickup of essential kinematics underpins expert perception of movement patterns. J. Mot. Behav. 39, 353–367 (2007).

  33. 33

    Gray, J.T., Neisser, U., Shapiro, B.A. & Kouns, S. Observational learning of ballet sequences: the role of kinematic information. Ecol. Psychol. 3, 121–134 (1991).

  34. 34

    Johansson, G. Visual perception of biological motion and a model for its analysis. Percept. Psychophys. 14, 201–211 (1973).

  35. 35

    Kilner, J.M., Vargas, C., Duval, S., Blakemore, S.J. & Sirigu, A. Motor activation prior to observation of a predicted movement. Nat. Neurosci. 7, 1299–1301 (2004).

  36. 36

    Urgesi, C., Moro, V., Candidi, M. & Aglioti, S.M. Mapping implied body actions in the human motor system. J. Neurosci. 26, 7942–7949 (2006).

  37. 37

    Meltzoff, A.N. & Moore, N.K. Imitation of facial and manual gestures by human neonates. Science 198, 74–78 (1977).

  38. 38

    Meltzoff, A.N. & Decety, J. What imitation tells us about social cognition: a rapprochement between developmental psychology and cognitive neuroscience. Phil. Trans. R. Soc. Lond. B 358, 491–500 (2003).

  39. 39

    Catmur, C., Walsh, V. & Heyes, C. Sensorimotor learning configures the human mirror system. Curr. Biol. 17, 1527–1531 (2007).

  40. 40

    van Schie, H.T., Mars, R.B., Coles, M.G. & Bekkering, H. Modulation of activity in medial frontal and motor cortices during error observation. Nat. Neurosci. 7, 549–554 (2004).

  41. 41

    Koelewijn, T., van Schie, H.T., Bekkering, H., Oostenveld, R. & Jensen, O. Motor-cortical beta oscillations are modulated by correctness of observed action. Neuroimage 40, 767–775 (2008).

  42. 42

    Briggs, G.G. & Nebes, R.D. Patterns of hand preference in a student population. Cortex 11, 230–238 (1975).

  43. 43

    Wasserman, E.M. Risk and safety of repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation: report and suggested guidelines from the International Workshop on the Safety of Repetitive Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation, 5–7 June 1996. Electroencephalogr. Clin. Neurophysiol. 108, 1–16 (1998).

  44. 44

    Chen, R. et al. Depression of motor cortex excitability by low-frequency transcranial magnetic stimulation. Neurology 48, 1398–1403 (1997).

  45. 45

    Brasil-Neto, J.P. et al. Optimal focal transcranial magnetic activation of the human motor cortex: effects of coil orientation, shape of the induced current pulse and stimulus intensity. J. Clin. Neurophysiol. 9, 132–136 (1992).

  46. 46

    Mills, K.R., Boniface, S.J. & Schubert, M. Magnetic brain stimulation with a double coil: the importance of coil orientation. Electroencephalogr. Clin. Neurophysiol. 85, 17–21 (1992).

Download references


We thank Luca Orlandi and Marco Veronese for their technical help. This research was supported by grants from the Ministero Istruzione Università e Ricerca (PRIN) and Fondo Investimenti per la Ricerca di Base, Italy, both awarded to S.M.A.

Author information

S.M.A. conceived the study, designed the experiment and wrote the paper. P.C. and C.U. designed the experiment, collected and analyzed the data, and wrote the paper. M.R. collected the data.

Correspondence to Salvatore M Aglioti.

Supplementary information

Supplementary Text and Figures

Supplementary Figure 1, Supplementary Tables 1–3 and Supplementary Note (PDF 746 kb)

Supplementary Video 1

Example of IN basket shot clips lasting 639, 781, 923 and 1,623 ms. (MOV 8300 kb)

Supplementary Video 2

Example of OUT basket shot clips lasting 639, 781, 923 and 1,623 ms. (MOV 6738 kb)

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Cite this article

Aglioti, S., Cesari, P., Romani, M. et al. Action anticipation and motor resonance in elite basketball players. Nat Neurosci 11, 1109–1116 (2008) doi:10.1038/nn.2182

Download citation

Further reading