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Why Soccer Players Are Smarter

April 8, 2014 09:09 AM
By Cassie Shortsleeve
This article was originally published Apr. 12, 2012 at

Soccer players are significantly smarter than, well, pretty much everyone, according to a new study in PLoS ONE. 

When professional soccer players were tested on “executive function” — a key aspect in memory, multitasking, and creativity — they scored significantly higher than the general population. In fact, elite players belonged to the best two-to-five percent of the total population, says Predrag Petrovic, Ph.D., the lead researcher and professor at Karolinska Institute in Stockholm. 

More from Learn to Speak Soccer 

Why? Soccer players have to adapt constantly to a rapidly changing environment to perform well, says Petrovic. That’s easily translated to tests of executive functions like changing strategies and suppressing old, outdated plans, he adds. 

“People assume that if you have a gifted arm or can kick a ball that you aren't smart, you don't need to be smart, or both,” says Kristen Dieffenbach, Ph.D., professor at West Virgina University. “High-level sport is physically demanding and requires high-level cognitive skills.” 

Here’s what you can learn from the pros: 

Be a Student of Your Game

“There’s a saying in soccer: You’re either physically gifted, or a student of the game,” says Kerry Zavagnin, assistant coach for Sporting Kansas City and 11-time member of the U.S. Men’s National Team. “Someone who can read situations and think about solutions instead of always relying on the physical component is a student of the game — that’s how I played.

"A good player makes all the other players around him better," says Zavagnin. "Anticipate what’s coming your way by communicating specifics, listening, observing and learning what people like and don’t like. The players who can take snapshots of the field and make decisions well before they receive the ball are ones with highest chance of success.” 

Be Quick on Your Feet

“As you increase levels in soccer, the speed of play gets that much faster — not so much the speed of running, but the speed of thought,” says Zavagnin. 

Next time you’re at the gym with a buddy, try Nick Downing's move. Downing, the trainer for the New England Revolution, swears by a variation of the depth jump. “It fires up your fast-twitch muscles,” he says. “I need the guys to be quick off their feet.” 

Stand on top of a block and have your friend stand a few feet in front of you. When you step down, land on both feet, and have him point either left or right. Then accelerate in that direction. The visual cue won’t come until you put your feet down, so you’ll have to rely on quick thinking to make your move, Downing says. 



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