Supporting Publication: Executive Functions Predict the Success of Top-Soccer Players
You can’t be a standout soccer player unless you’ve got three important skills on the pitch. The physical ability to move around with speed, coordination that allows precise maneuverability of the ball, and most importantly “game intelligence” all contribute to the talent that is seen in the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi. Physical ability and coordination are something that can easily be tested however “game intelligence” has been described by many as a magical ability that is impossible to measure… until recently perhaps.
You shouldn’t be shocked to learn that a group of researchers in Europe (the only region of the world in which soccer is a socially accepted religion) took it upon themselves to find a way to measure “game intelligence” by directing their questions to the source of all goal-directed behavior (no pun intended), the brain! Neuroscientists at the Karolinska Institutet in Stockholm, Sweden attempted to physically define “game intelligence” by equating this magical quality to executive function of the brain.
Executive function is a term that is used to describe a number of important cognitive processes such as planning, working memory, initiation and monitoring of actions and multi-tasking. These cognitive processes are generally carried out in the prefrontal areas of the frontal lobe of the brain. This is interesting when we consider the number of times a player will “head” a ball or allow the ball to deflect off the front of the head, throughout their career. You would think that heading a ball would affect brain functioning however several studies have shown that this act doesn’t diminish the cognitive functioning of soccer players.
Anyway lets get back on track here… “Game intelligence” has been described as the ability to “read” the play, to be always in the right place at the right time, and steal goals. These abilities require the brain to always be creative and freely change tactics in a rapid rate when new solutions to problems are identified. “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 at the Department of Clinical Neuroscience at Karolinska Institutet.
Petrovic and his colleagues studied 57 elite soccer players in Allsvenskan (the best Swedish league) and in Division 1 (the league under Allsvenskan) and they found that when compared with the general population of Sweden, the soccer players performed much better in tests that measured executive functions. Furthermore Petrovic found that the players in Allsvenskan scored higher than players in Division 1. Now I don’t want to eliminate the possibility that the general population of Sweden just isn’t very smart but the statistical findings of the study were significant enough that we can trust Dr. Petrtovic.
After these initial findings of higher executive function, Petrovic and colleagues followed several of the soccer players for a few years in order to compare performance of the players on the field to initial test results. The number of goals and assists each player made was recorded and each player was awarded points related to their performance. It was found that the scores that each player received in the initial test of executive function correlated quite well with the number of points each player accumulated over the three year observation period. More interestingly, the best players that were identified with the point-scoring system were also the individuals that scored highest in the executive function tests.
The results obtained from this study are striking in many ways. For one, it made me second guess the “dumb athlete myth”…it’s very likely that a good majority of the athlete population has an equal cognitive aptitude (I won’t say higher…) than many of you neuroscience nerds out there. Furthermore if there is solid evidence that suggests that cognitive tests can predict the likelihood of a person becoming a good soccer player, will tests of executive function become a standard when soccer players are attempting to move into the major leagues?
“ We can imagine a situation in which cognitive testes 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,” says Torgjorn Vestberg, a psychologist and member of the Karolinska research group. I think Vestberg has a point however all of you science nerds possessing superior cognitive aptitude and wishing to join the major leagues of soccer should not rejoice quite yet… We can’t forget that physical ability as well as excellent coordination are equally important qualities of a soccer player and unfortunately these traits don’t come natural to most. Don’t beat yourself up about it though nerds, someone has to take on the responsibility of advancing civilization…