Can brain imaging predict soccer success?

A new study believes that football clubs which focus too much on physical attributes risk overlooking future stars. Does this mean that with the correct cognitive behavior you could outrun Usain Bolt? No, there are still physical realities to sports, no matter what a press release wants to claim, but intangibles like "eccentricity" and other psychological characteristics matter now, just as they always have.

Size, fitness and ball control are just easy barriers to entry, the same way a company might disqualify those without a college degree. The more elusive factor of “game intelligence” only gets considered if they clearly have some physical acumen. For a player who can play, the ability to be in the right place at the right time has been vital. In American football it is the same. Much has been made of Tom Brady's performance in the "combines" and how no one could have predicted his stardom, but they are forgetting that because he was in the combines at all, he was one of the best players in the U.S. He got drafted. It was then that his intangibles set him apart. He is still fit today and that helps his game ability shine.

In 2012, researchers at Karolinska Institutet claimed to have a possible scientific explanation for game intelligence, saying that “executive cognitive functions” in adult players could be associated with their success on the pitch. A new paper in the pay-to-publish journal PLOS ONE finds that cognitive faculties can be similarly quantified and linked to how well children and young people do in the game.

Executive functions are special control functions in the brain that allow us to adapt to an environment in a perpetual state of change. They include creative thinking in order to quickly switch strategy, find new, effective solutions and repress erroneous impulses. The functions are dependent on the brain’s frontal lobes, which continue to develop until the age of 25.

For this present study, the researchers measured certain executive functions in 30 elite footballers aged between 12 and 19, and then cross-referenced the results with the number of goals they scored during two years. The metrics were taken in part using the same standardised tests used in healthcare. Strong results for several executive functions were found to be associated with success on the pitch, even after controlling for other factors that could conceivably affect performance. The clearest link was seen for simpler forms of executive function, such as working memory, which develops relatively early in life.

The young elite players also performed significantly better than the average population in the same age group on several tests of executive function. Whether these faculties are inherited or can be trained remains the object of future research, as does the importance of the different executive functions for the various positions on the field.

Citation: 'Core executive functions are associated with success in young elite soccer players' Vestberg T, Reinebo G, Maurex L, Ingvar M, Petrovic P. PLOS ONE, 8 February 2017.