Apr. 5, 2012 -- An athlete's knack for completing a pass or scoring a goal may depend as much on sharp mental skills as superior physical abilities, a new study shows.
Researchers in Sweden gave a battery of psychological tests to 57 male and female soccer players. About half the players were athletes from Sweden's elite Allsvenskan league. The other half came from lower Division I teams.
Researchers found top athletes scored higher than 95% of the population on certain measures of brain function.
The tests were designed to measure a set of coordinated mental processes that scientists refer to as executive function.
Executive functions involve creativity, attention, time management, working memory, and self-control. In general, executive functions help people to reach personal goals.
Executive functions are also the basis of something coaches call game intelligence.
"Game intelligence is about being able to read a play and acting quickly on that," says researcher Predrag Petrovic, MD, PhD, a professor in the department of clinical neuroscience at Karolinska Institute in Stockholm.
As a group, the soccer players had better executive function scores than members of the general population. And the elite players had significantly better scores than the Division I players.
"So it seems that the better player you are, the higher you score, basically," Petrovic says.
Phillip Tomporowski, PhD, a professor in the department of kinesiology at the University of Georgia, in Athens, says in an email to WebMD that the study is "quite interesting and relevant" and helps further dispel the idea that athletes are all brawn and no brains.
"Indeed, the ?dumb jock' is a myth," he says.
Tomporowski studies the effect of exercise on executive function in older adults, but he was not involved in the new study.
One question the study can't answer, Tomporowski says, is whether a person has to be born with high executive function to make it as a top-level team player, or whether those skills can be honed through practice.
"That is the question," says Petrovic, "Our working theory is that both are true."
"You need good executive functions to be an elite player. However, it is also possible, to a certain extent, to train your executive functions so you can become better at this, as well," he says.
What's more, Petrovic says, high scores on executive function were able to predict which players would be more successful over time.
"We were able to follow at lot of these players for two seasons and we could show that those who had higher scores, that would predict that they would make more goals and more assists in these two coming seasons," he tells WebMD. "You can look for who can become a talent."