Score one for athletes over sportswriters: Basketball players are nearly twice as good as sportswriters at predicting whether a shot will go in the basket.

According to new research appearing in Nature Neuroscience, 'ballers can imagine the shooting motion of another player to predict whether a basketball shot is headed for nothing but net or will brick off the rim. The key to their trick: the muscles that control the pinky finger.

Sportswriters’ pinky fingers, it seems, are too busy hitting “return” and punctuating.

Researchers at Rome's Sapienza University showed footage of a man shooting free throws to 10 players from Italy's professional basketball league, five coaches, five sports journalists and 10 college students, who do not play the game. Their task: Predict whether the shooter's next shot will go in.

The scientists froze the video at a number of points in the ball's trajectory, starting before it was released all the way through the swish or airball. Basketball players got the right answer 70 percent of the time—even if the shooter was still holding the ball. The non-athletes were accurate 40 percent of the time.

When the researchers repeated the test—this time while using a technique called transcranial magnetic stimulation to track activity in the subjects' brains—they noted two brain areas that control two arm muscles turned on in the basketball stars, but not in the other groups. The muscles extend from the elbow to the wrist and from the wrist to the pinky finger.

So, elite basketball players—like those hooping it up at the Olympics in China—seem to be actually going through the motions in their head. And if they think the ball is going astray, their brain activity intensifies—as if they are trying to correct the shot.

“The more you do something, the more it is embodied in you,” Scott Grafton, a cognitive neuroscientist at the University of California, Santa Barbara told Science News. “It doesn’t just change your muscle memory, it changes the way you see the world around you.”

The researchers didn't give any indication which team might take home the Olympic gold medal in basketball. They may not be paying attention—Italy didn't qualify for the games.

(Photo: iStockphoto/William Fuller)