Elite Soccer Players’ Brains Excel At Planning And Problem Solving

By Dan Peterson

Coaches and commentators often refer to an athlete’s ability to “see the field” or be a play-maker.  Rookies at the next level can’t wait for the game to “slow down” so their brains can process all of the moving pieces.  What exactly is this so-called game intelligence and court vision?  Can it be recognized and developed in younger players?  For the first time, neuroscientists at Sweden’s Karolinska Institutet have found a link between our brain’s “executive functions” and sports success.

Arjen Robben and Cristiano Ronaldo

When in the middle of a heated game on the field or court, our brains are accomplishing the ultimate in multitasking.  Moving, anticipating, strategizing, reacting and performing requires an enormous amount of brain activity and the athletes who can process information faster often win.

In the everyday world, these types of activities, including planning, problem solving, verbal reasoning, and monitoring of our actions, have been called “executive functions.”  They are called into action when we face non-standard situations or problems where our automatic brain responses won’t work.  Neuroimaging studies have shown this activity happens in the prefrontal cortex of our brains. In ever-changing game situations, those abilities are often used and players need to adapt and be creative on short notice.

“Our brains have specific systems that process information in just this manner, and we have validated methods within cognitive research to measure how well the executive functions work in an individual,” says Dr Predrag Petrovic, the lead researcher in the study.

One of these standardized methods is the Delis-Kaplan executive functions system (D-KEFS) that consists of a series of tests of both verbal and non-verbal skills.  Petrovic and his team gave several of these tests to 57 elite soccer players from Sweden’s highest professional league, Allsvenskan, and the league just below known as Division 1.  After comparing the results, they found that the elite players performed significantly higher than a control group of non-players and the Allsvenskan players also outperformed the Division 1 players.

As in any sport, it’s the on-field performance that matters.  So, the researchers followed the professional players for two seasons and gathered statistics on goals and assists for each player.  There was a clear correlation between higher executive function test results and the ability to create goals.

Their study has been published in the online science journal PLoSONE.

Previous research had used sport-specific tests to measure individual abilities such as focus and attention.  Petrovic’s work was the first to link general problem solving ability with elite performance.

“We can imagine a situation in which cognitive tests of this type become a tool to develop new, successful soccer players. We need to study whether it is also possible to improve the executive functions through training, such that the improvement is expressed on the field. But there is probably a hereditary component, and a component that can be developed by training,” says Torbjörn Vestberg, psychologist and a member of the research group that carried out the study.

As Vestberg points out, this is exciting news for coaches and parents who can now link improvement in general problem-solving skills with their players’ sports performance.  Here at Axon, we are excited to be developing sport-specific cognitive training tools based on these foundational discoveries to help gain the edge over the competition.

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One Response to Elite Soccer Players’ Brains Excel At Planning And Problem Solving

  1. Mark Upton says:

    Reading the full research article the authors mention one limitation that immediately came to my mind – only using goals and assists as the measure of performance is somewhat limiting and may bias the results.

    A follow up study that perhaps included some other measures of performance would be interesting to compare against. If no correlations were found with say, defensive prowess, could it actually tell us that executive function is most strongly linked to the highly creative “solutions” often needed to score, or create scoring chances?

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