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What is football intelligence and can players develop it? Part 1

Football Intelligence

Football intelligence is when a player can analyse the most important information on the field, identify their best options and then execute the most likely decision to end in the best defensive actions or scoring opportunities. Problem-solving, cognitive flexibility, novelty, memory, and decision-making play a part in this process. These all fall under executive function.

What is executive function?

According to Harvard, “Executive function and self-regulation skills are the mental processes that enable us to plan, focus attention, remember instructions, and juggle multiple tasks successfully” (1). For a football player, it involves the optimising of motor skills, such as running, passing, dribbling, and scoring, to the point of them becoming autonomous. This is where the skill is performed from the subconscious mind, it has become automatic. This is imperative as it frees up mental space to optimise the player’s executive functions, which works toward developing their football intelligence.

Fitts and Posner’s three-stage process of motor skill learning

IQ Football’s brain-centred curriculum uses the understanding of Fitts and Posner’s three stage process of motor skill learning. This process is paramount to a player developing football intelligence. These are termed: cognitive, associative, and autonomous (2). At first a player must gather information about the skill. The information from the coach must be presented well and in multiple ways to engage as many senses as possible – sight, sound and touch. It is verbally explained and physically demonstrated. This is the stage of acquisition and cognitive processing.

“The associative stage is characterized as much less verbal information, smaller gains in performance, conscious performance, adjustment making, awkward and disjointed movement, and taking a long time to complete” (3). Elite athletes and professional coaches are always looking for ways to improve. There is never a roof to the level of achievement one can reach. Even a highly successful footballer can improve his/her shooting technique. It is not just beginner athletes that should revisit the cognitive and associative stages of motor learning, professional athletes revisit these stages often.

The autonomous stage is the final stage of motor skill learning and is most effective in helping a player to develop football intelligence. This stage takes much longer to achieve, and it can take years until it becomes apparent that an athlete is now in the autonomous stage of learning. Performance is now mainly automatic. Cognitive processing has become less taxing and now there is time for executive functions to come to the fore. Processing information, such as defensive players and the game strategy is much easier to focus on. 

“Technique is not being able to juggle a ball 1000 times. Anyone can do that by practicing. Then you can work in the circus. Technique is passing the ball with one touch, with the right speed, at the right foot of your team mate.”

Johan Cruyff

In other words, Johan Cruyff, who was a master of football intelligence, is explaining that in a game, a player needs to make a decision, based on the analysis of the most important information on the field, and then appropriately execute that decision with their mastered skill. Someone can be a “master of the ball” but if they cannot translate that skill into the game scenario, it is simply freestyle-football entertainment.

In conclusion

The answer to the title question is yes, a player most certainly can develop football intelligence. It is mastered through the correct drills provided by coaches who know how to properly process players through the three stages of motor skills learning. Look out for the next blog, which delves into this further.



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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.

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