Researchers at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm reported in the Public Library of Science (April 2012) on a study comparing the cognitive performance of top flight footballers with the lower leagues. They also looked at the influence cognitive functioning had on performance on-field (goals scored and assists). In the study they measured the players’ ‘executive functions’ and included measures such as creativity, cognitive flexibility, working memory and cognitive processing speed. These functions are important in dealing with sudden problems, immediate creativity, processing information ‘real-time’ on the pitch, changing tactics rapidly and revising previous behaviour which did not work (all elements which are part of ‘game-intelligence’).
Dr Predrag Petrovic and his team at the Department of Clinical Neuroscience found that players with the best test scores on executive functioning also had the best results on-field in the league (goals scored and assists). They also found that the players in the top division scored significantly higher than the players in division 1. In addition, footballers as a whole were in the top two percentile for the population by this measure. These results are unique, since they are based on scientifically standardised tests.
This result is another interesting and important finding in the process of discovering which psychological / neuro-psychological aspects are most important in predicting on-field performance. These types of assessment instruments can become a very important tool in developing new and potentially successful football players. Further studies would, however, be needed to determine if it is possible to improve executive functions or if it is an innate component. It is possible, as with most psychological components that it could be part learned and part inherited. Whatever the answer might be, it emphasises the important role that relevant scientific and psychological tools can play in elite sports performance as either a predictive tool or a baseline assessment for further intervention.
As clinicians, at LPP we are collaborating with various international partners to find ways of bringing these and other research findings to the sports environments to assist elite sports people in optimising performance.