Monday, April 16, 2012

Executive Function: The Creative Side of Elite Soccer

When identifying talent and potential success of soccer players, the focus in most often on physical and technical attributes. Speed, size and ball skills often dominate the evaluation process. But what about the mental side of the game? Does a player’s ability to think predict his or her future success? The concept of executive function describes cognitive processes that regulate both thought and action. These processes include planning, problem solving, creative thinking, use of feedback, and cognitive flexibility (quickly altering the plan of action). In a sport such as soccer, players must continually take in large amounts of information, process and assess the situation, rely on past experiences to determine a plan of action. He or she must also remain flexible to unfamiliar situations and new opportunities that arise. Add to that, the plan of attack must be formulated, executed and revised in a matter of milliseconds. This suggests that a high level of executive function would benefit the player. Researchers in Sweden looked at this concept in top-level players. They found that this psychological characteristic is an important predictor the success of these players.

The study compared male and female players from the Swedish professional leagues. Players who played in the Allsvenskan (first division national league) were compared to players from two lower division leagues (Superettan and Division 1).

All players were given several psychological tests designed to measure executive function. Specifically, they were administered the Design Fluency test. This is a “hand and pen” test that measures multiprocessing, creativity and cognitive flexibility. During this test, players were presented with various arrays of dots. They were then asked to find as many possible was of connecting the dots into a square using a single line. The goal is to find as many different combinations as possible within 60 sec.

The results showed that the average score for all players was above that of the general population, indicating that soccer players excel in executive function. In fact, the Allsvenskan players’ scores placed them in the top 5% of the general population. The researchers also found that both male and female players from the Allsvenskan scored more than 15% better than their counterparts from the lower division leagues. This lead the researchers to conclude that executive function is an important characteristic in top-level soccer players and this trait may predict future success of players.

One must take into account that this study is a snapshot of two groups of players. Thus, it is difficult to imply cause and effect. Does higher executive function make for a better player? Or, does playing at a high level improve executive function? Many feel that executive function is relatively stable throughout life. Somewhat like IQ, it is a genetic gift, one that can be improved but only to a small extent. And executive function training usually involves a fairly intense program. Thus, it is most likely that high executive function influences soccer performance rather than vice versa.

The SSO has addressed the importance of decision making previously. Two years ago, elite Dutch players were found to excel in characteristics of positioning and deciding (link). Self-evaluations of tactical abilities showed that elite players were better able to comprehend tactical situations and translate their decisions into actions than were more novice players. The results of the present study suggest that this ability does not necessarily arise from the elite player’s familiarity with the game. Rather it is more of an innate characteristic of being able to critically analyze a situation and arrive at creative solutions to complex problems. That is, elite players think more creatively which leads to better decision making.

For many coaches and students of the game, executive function may be a new term but is not necessarily a new concept. Most are amazed at players who play creatively, those who read the game and routinely create opportunities out of nothing. It is something that is apparent when watching a match. Unfortunately executive function may be a trait that is overlooked when identifying talented players. The study’s authors suggest that coaches should look beyond simply selecting potential players should not only include physical capacity, ball control and how well the player performs. Characteristics of executive function, problem solving and creative play may help them determine if a player has the capacity to reach top levels in soccer.

Reference

Vestberg T, Gustafson R, Maurex L, Ingvar M, Petrovic P (2012) Executive functions predict the success of top-soccer players, PLos ONE, 7: e34731.