A recent study finds that several components of executive function, including motor inhibition and attention, correlate well with soccer success in youth athletes.
With national team rosters being set as we approach the 2014 FIFA World Cup, it is easy to forget the time and energy that national and club football programs spent on developing this crop of elite athletes. Coaches and scouts scour youth soccer academies looking for young talent that may blossom into the next Messi or Ronaldo. That task is mostly subjective, but a recent study shows that components of executive function correlate well with athlete success in Dutch youth soccer (aka football) academies (Executive Functioning in Highly Talented Soccer Players, 2014. Lot Verburgh, et al.). Measuring executive function provides scouts another way of objectively assessing talent outside of commonly-prescribed physical performance tests. Furthermore, cognitive function in general has recently been recognized for its importance in athletic success.
Executive functions are comprised of higher-order cognitive functions including inhibition of behavior, attention and working memory. Executive function can be quantitatively measured with a variety of tests. It is not surprising that executive functioning is critical for soccer players. Changing dynamics on the turf require players to quickly assess changing situations, plan their next moves and execute accordingly. Working memory is essential because there are many components on the soccer field that must be taken into consideration. Finally, sustained alertness is important because a single lapse in mental focus over the duration of the 90 minute game can cost the match.
The aforementioned study tested youth soccer players in the Netherlands. The players were divided into two groups, amateur and highly talented. 84 male highly talented soccer players (average age 12) were selected from academies in the talent development programs of Dutch Premier League clubs. Admission into these academies is highly selective. The 42 amateur soccer players played in a variety of Dutch youth soccer clubs and were age-matched with the highly talented soccer players. The players’ executive function was measured with a variety of tasks requiring different cognitive functions: motor inhibition (inhibiting a visually triggered motor action in response to a second visual cue), visuospatial working memory (reproducing patterns on a 4x4 grid), attention (responding quickly and accurately to a visual stimulus).
So what components of executive function did the study find to be correlated with youth soccer success? Motor inhibition was found to be more accurate in the highly talented athletes. However, the time to react was slightly slower. This suggests that the highly talented soccer players utilize a more conservative strategy in visual motor inhibition. Attention was higher in the highly talented soccer players. However, no significant differences in visuospatial working memory were observed. The results of the study can be seen in the figure below.
However, this study leaves some questions unanswered. It has been shown in previous studies that executive function is correlated with success of adult soccer players as well. This may suggest that executive function as a youth predicts future success as a professional adult soccer player. An interesting study would be to look at where the highly talented youth soccer players end up in their future careers. We may have to wait several World Cup cycles to follow this up, although for some players the wait to get called up to a FIFA World Cup may not be long at all. Another question that can be asked is how trainable is executive function. Could the multitude of soccer situations experienced by participants in the Netherlands’ Premier League youth academies train the brain to be more adept at responding to changing situations? Research says executive function is trainable, which adds weight to this theory.
In summary, this study shows that components of executive function including attention and motor inhibition are correlated with youth soccer success, while other components, such as visuospatial memory, show no such correlation. This may add another dimension for scouts to assess the potential of youth soccer players.