It can’t be easy trying to pick a team for a huge football tournament like the Euros, carrying the hopes of an entire nation. Football managers may have great skill and intuition, but it is, after all, not an exact science. But what if their talents could be supported by more precise tools informed by the latest research?
It turns out this is becoming a possibility. In a series of scientific studies, we have shown that simple neuropsychological tests of football players’ executive functions and working memory can help predict how many goals they will score, how many passes they will make and how successful they will be overall.
Football players are typically selected from an early age based on their football skills and fitness through a complex, rather nebulous system. In the English system, players typically earn their first full-time training contract at 16. By 21 the attrition rate is 75% or above.
However, while selection is usually based on physical skills, football is in the end more about the brain. Successful football players need to process massive amounts of information quickly under extreme mental and physical pressure. Fast decisions must be taken in a very short time span, suppressing irrelevant information and adapting to a highly dynamic environment. Players also need to be creative and accurate in making those decisions to be at the right spot at the right time and add to the overall team performance.
The current system is therefore worrying, as it could easily miss world-class footballers such as Xavier “Xavi” Hernández Creus, who plays for Qatari club Al Sadd SC, and fellow Spaniard Andres Iniesta, who plays for FC Barcelona and the Spanish national team – both physically small in stature. Yet they both have the outstanding brain abilities that have allowed them to thrive far beyond all expectations.
The cognitive abilities needed in football are often referred to as “game intelligence” in sport psychology. Traditionally, however, this has been thought to be impossible to measure. But the field of cognitive psychology has developed methods for measuring something called executive functions; a set of complex regulatory brain processes that orchestrate higher-order thought and action, especially in non-routine situations.
So far four different studies have assessed several hundreds of junior and senior elite players and compared them with semi-elite and novice players as well as the normal population.
These neuropsychological assessments are performance tests made typically with either computers and/or paper-and-pen, and in this case non-verbal. They measure things like problem solving, planning, sequencing, attention, inhibition, utilisation of feedback, multi-tasking, cognitive flexibility and ability to deal with novelty.
The results of these studies show that executive function is clearly linked to game intelligence and that elite footballers outperform their non-elite footballing peers on these measures. Our study showed that the performance on these tests also predicted how many goals a footballer scored or helped score for more than two years after the tests were taken. We also tested Xavi and Iniesta and showed that their test results were vastly superior to the rest of the footballers we also tested.
The science of teams
Football is not only about individual players but rather about how the individuals fit the team. Ongoing research in our laboratories is focusing on identifying the different brain profiles of players in different positions in teams.
Our initial results suggest that successful midfielders such as Xavi and Iniesta will need to have sustained, excellent executive function performance over time. These players are able to keep mental track of the position of other players over an entire game so that they together can play passes that create space for the team and win matches.
In contrast, strikers will exhibit short-lasting, ultra-fast impulsive decision making that allows for decisive actions in front of goal, while defenders may have yet different profiles of executive functions. Defenders do not need to think about space constantly but need to be highly skilled at response inhibition and prediction, counteracting and neutralising the ultra-fast impulsive attackers and the strategic midfielders.
While these tests are clearly highly significant in establishing the abilities of individual players, it is important to remember that football is a team sport. Successful managers have to be able to put together the complex jigsaw of individual skills to create a team where the parts are more than the whole. Some of the best examples of teams in previous Euro competitions who successfully managed this were Denmark, who won in 1992, and Greece, who won in 2004.
Nevertheless, the days of trying to second guess the intuitive methods of managers may soon be complemented with the precise tools developed in brain science.
These could be used in many ways, such as selecting gifted footballers at an early age or testing and selecting from the large, untapped pool of footballing ability in a global football world. We expect that footballers would want to take these tests to learn about their strengths and to identify potential weaknesses that can be improved with training. And managers could use these methods to find the perfect set of profiles of a winning team and identify the missing players in this jigsaw. In fact, this may produce the kind of competitive advantage needed to stage the most spectacular, unexpected and romantic wins that football fans everywhere crave.