Higher Scores in Executive Function = Higher Ability to Score

Is there a future in testing the thinking ability of athletes to predict their performance in sports? Torbjorn Vestberg, a psychologist at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm thinks so.

He noticed that a team of grassroots footballers who kept winning the trophy year after year, didn’t stand out very much in the skills department - he pondered how it was then, that they were so victorious. “They didn’t look so good,” he says, “so it must have been that they could calculate information, be in the right place at the right time.” It was this observation that triggered Vestberg’s research into the minds of soccer players.

“Footballers in particular have to be very creative because the game has so much novelty factor. There is a high level of options, there are lots of different situations, which are extremely fast-changing,” he says. After watching his local team closely, Vestberg started to research Executive Function in the context of football.

Executive function (EF) encompasses many different aspects of cognitive thinking, such as the ability to pay attention, decision-making skills, planning, goal-directed behaviour and problem-solving.

There’s also inhibition and flexibility, as Vestberg explains, “If you want to fool a defender you do one thing. If that doesn’t work anymore, you need to do a different thing. You need to stop (inhibition) and change tactic (be flexible).”

In 2012, he studied 56 soccer players for a Japanese TV programme – a combination of top-level footballers and those from two leagues below (both men and women), with an average age of 24. The EF of the highest-level players was significantly better.

He looked particularly at: inhibitions (the reason this is very important in football is that the ability to stop the planned action and make a better, more effective plan – all in a matter of a milli-second – is crucial), cognitive flexibility (being able to switch between thinking about one concept to a different one or being able to think simultaneously about two different concepts) and he looked at creative flow (the mental ability of being completely present/fully immersed in the task at hand).

This research spanned 2.5 years and only attacking players who scored at least one goal or assisted in goal-scoring were invited to take part. Vestberg found that, “High Executive Function correlated strongly with goals achieved and that Executive Function could therefore predict success.”

His second study in 2017 looked at 30 youth players (aged between 12-19) at an elite Swedish academy. After two years of observation, Vestberg found again that without a doubt, there was a strong correlation between very high EF scores and the ability to score.

His most recent (football) research was in 2020. He selected professional teams playing in the Swedish premier league equivalent, the Allsvenskan. He tested several members who were playing nationally as well, against those who played only in the Allsvenskan. He found that those of national AND premier league talent consistently had higher scores in the cognitive testing, than those who played solely in the Swedish league. This finding was also backed by the coaches and managers, who separately rated the international players higher in ability.

“Soccer players have a milli-second to do it!” concludes Vestberg. “They are in fact thinking inside the box, not outside the box. The environment is limited, and they need to know how to handle the limitations, in an instant. It’s having a super-vision of what’s going on and connecting information with reactions. It’s intuition.”

It’s clear the idea of talent identification in elite sports via non-physical tests of inherent traits has lots of mileage. This could well be an established form of selection used to identify up-and-coming players in years to come.

Recommended Links

Karolinska Institutet - a medical university (ki.se)

Quantifying the role of chance in professional football - German Sport University Cologne (dshs-koeln.de)

Executive Function | Psychology Today

Sport type determines differences in executive functions in elite athletes - ScienceDirect

Executive Functions Predict the Success of Top-Soccer Players (plos.org)