Research Article: Core executive functions are associated with success in young elite soccer players

Date Published: February 8, 2017

Publisher: Public Library of Science

Author(s): Torbjörn Vestberg, Gustaf Reinebo, Liselotte Maurex, Martin Ingvar, Predrag Petrovic, Luca Paolo Ardigò.


Physical capacity and coordination cannot alone predict success in team sports such as soccer. Instead, more focus has been directed towards the importance of cognitive abilities, and it has been suggested that executive functions (EF) are fundamentally important for success in soccer. However, executive functions are going through a steep development from adolescence to adulthood. Moreover, more complex EF involving manipulation of information (higher level EF) develop later than simple executive functions such as those linked to simple working memory capacity (Core EF). The link between EF and success in young soccer players is therefore not obvious. In the present study we investigated whether EF are associated with success in soccer in young elite soccer players. We performed tests measuring core EF (a demanding working memory task involving a variable n-back task; dWM) and higher level EF (Design Fluency test; DF). Color-Word Interference Test and Trail Making Test were performed on an exploratory level as they contain a linguistic element. The lower level EF test (dWM) was taken from CogStateSport computerized concussion testing and the higher level EF test (DF) was from Delis-Kaplan Executive Function System test battery (D-KEFS). In a group of young elite soccer players (n = 30; aged 12–19 years) we show that they perform better than the norm in both the dWM (+0.49 SD) and DF (+0.86 SD). Moreover, we could show that both dWM and DF correlate with the number of goals the players perform during the season. The effect was more prominent for dWM (r = 0.437) than for DF (r = 0.349), but strongest for a combined measurement (r = 0.550). The effect was still present when we controlled for intelligence, length and age in a partial correlation analysis. Thus, our study suggests that both core and higher level EF may predict success in soccer also in young players.

Partial Text

A skilled and successful soccer player needs to process a large amount of information in a short time under mental pressure. Many decisions must be made fast and quickly and be reevaluated depending on the demand on the pitch. The necessary behavior includes a creative decision-making in which both accuracy and speed are at top level. Such behavior helps the soccer player to “read the game” and make successful a priori expectations [1]. These cognitive abilities are called game intelligence in soccer [1]. In psychology similar cognitive abilities are called executive functions [2–4]. Executive functions (EF) is used as a term to describe cognitive processes that regulate thought and action, especially in non-routine situations [5]. Examples of such processes as defined in cognitive psychological terms are problem solving, planning, sequencing, selective and sustained attention, inhibition, utilization of feedback, multi-tasking, cognitive flexibility and ability to deal with novelty [6, 7].

The present study replicated our previous findings [13] suggesting that general executive functions are important for success in soccer. Moreover, the results were extended from a senior elite level to a junior elite level and shown to be independent from factors such as general intelligence and physical differences. Thereby, the present study has been able to generalize the importance of EF for success in soccer from senior to junior level. The study also suggests that both core EF (CEF) and higher level EF (HEF) are important for soccer success in adolescence—but that only HEF are still developing.