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What is football intelligence and can players develop it? A focus on executive functions – Part 2

Executive functions

Football intelligence and executive functions are hot topics, and they should be hotter. Their importance cannot be underestimated. Whoever said footballers were not the brightest crayons in the box was not well informed. Neuroscientists at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden tested players from Sweden’s professional football leagues and non-players to analyse their executive functions, including, “problem-solving, planning, multitasking, cognitive-flexibility, and ability to deal with novelty”(1). The findings were incredible.

Executive Functions Predict the Success of Top-Soccer Players

They found that footballers in the top tier of the league scored the highest on tests that look at how quickly one can deal “with information” and make “decisions about the environment” (1). Impressively, their scores ranked in the top two percent when compared with the general population. These scores were then followed by players from lower divisions and finally, the lowest scoring of the test sample were the non-players.

The scientists continued the research and discovered that there was a correlation between test scores and performance. The higher the test scores, the more goals and assists of the player. The research by Professor Predrag Petrovic extended to Spain where Xavi and Iniesta volunteered their brains for examination. Xavi showed high scores for his scanning ability, analysis and imagination. Iniesta scored in the top 0.1% for design fluency (ability to generate geometric patterns) and excelled in the area of inhibition (the suppression of actions that are inappropriate in a given context and that interfere with goal-driven behaviour).

Unique Intelligence

The above findings go to show that it is a person’s unique intelligence that makes them stand out and be the best they can be. Xavi and Iniesta are both footballing champions, but their impressively high scores came from different executive functions.

Importantly, it is understood that the development of executive functions is considered to take place progressively throughout childhood and adolescence from birth to 19 years of age (4). Executive functions are related to only some aspects of IQ. While the ability to update information in working memory is closely correlated with IQ, inhibition and quickly switching between different data show little or no relation to IQ (3).

It is of utmost importance that football clubs know how to coach football intelligence, and make it a priority from a young age! This can be done as wisely as possible when working with the correct models – see part 1.

In a paper on “Cognition in Football”, it is said that because football players are physically fit individuals, their constant physical training may help with increased cognition (2). They go so far to say that both the physical and the mental training that these individuals undergo, change the formation and functioning of their neurons. In conclusion, they say that physical training increases the number of new neurons whereas mental training increases the survival of neurons. Both of these training processes in combination cause an increase in cognitive functioning (2). Coaches who understand this and its application can make the greatest impact on a player’s career. 

Emotional Intelligence

When we speak about intelligence, we don’t just mean the “mental” kind. Emotional intelligence is absolutely part of decision making, and therefore determines how well one’s executive functions are able to operate. Emotions are often driven by thoughts. Your past experiences, memory and mindsets around certain topics will determine how you respond. The right emotions will optimise a player’s executive functioning.

A player’s resilience enables him to bounce back from a goal he just missed earlier in the game. If he has the right mindset and channels the right emotion, he gives himself the best chance to score in the time remaining. If his emotions are all over the place, he won’t have the mental capacity and focus to execute the right moves. How many times is a player kicked, elbowed, or jostled in the game? Does he have enough self-control to let it go, not take it personally, and still focus on the game?

When there are thousands upon thousands of screaming fans watching a player do a penalty shootout, will he be able to keep his nerves in check and stand in the belief that he will score? A player might have the executive function and the ball mastery of an unbeatable footballing champion, but if he hasn’t honed his emotional intelligence, it would all be for naught. There’s a reason why self-control is so often spoken about by coaches. When a player has the ability to be disciplined enough to control and use their emotions wisely, they are leaps ahead in operating their executive functions optimally and in executing football intelligence.

Closing thoughts

Football players are pressed from many different angles, mentally, physically, and emotionally, and it requires mastering football skills, optimising their executive functions, and having the emotional intelligence to make smart choices in a game scenario. It is becoming more prevalent to test the brain’s capacity to operate at an elite level of football.

Torbjörn Vestberg, a licensed psychologist, consultant and researcher from Sweden, who has a doctoral degree in cognitive neuroscience explains that, “by working with elite football teams and international companies I have developed a new approach to recruitment and talent management. By measuring the brain capacity that drives how you handle an ongoing situation you will capture important variables behind successful behavior. 

“The information gained from cognitive test tools combined with an in-depth understanding of the brain capacity required to be successful at an elite level in either football or key business positions, I give football teams and companies the unique ability to predict behaviors among their players and co-workers.”

There are more and more players being recruited by these measures. It is imperative for club coaches to understand and implement the right training in order to work on a player’s executive functions and build football intelligence.



executive function, Football, football intelligence, game intelligence, Motor Skills, Soccer

Sean Szabo

Recognised as a leading brain-centred football coach in Gauteng, Sean Szabo is an English FA qualified coach who has worked internationally assisting player’s motor and technical football skills, as well as their cognitive development on and off the field. IQ Football was founded in 2015 by Sean as an amalgamation of his passion for football coaching, mentoring, and brain-centred research.