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Sports Success in the Young Linked to Working Memory

Another good reason why children should do Edublox Online Tutor: a study shows a strong link between executive functions, such as working memory and sports achievement. Working memory refers to the ability to temporarily hold several facts or thoughts in memory while solving a problem or performing a task. Working memory is necessary for staying focused on a task, blocking out distractions, and keeping you updated and aware of what’s going on around you.

Success on soccer pitch linked to cognitive functions

The Karolinska Institutet, Sweden study shows that working memory and other cognitive functions in children and young people can be associated with their success on the soccer pitch. Soccer clubs that focus too much on physical attributes risk overlooking future stars.

Physical attributes such as size, fitness, and strength combined with ball control have long been considered critical factors in the hunt for new soccer talent. The third, slightly elusive factor of “game intelligence” — to always be at the right place at the right time — has been difficult to measure.

What is “game intelligence”? 

Researchers at Karolinska Institutet provided a possible scientific explanation for the phenomenon. They showed that the so-called “executive cognitive functions” in adult players could be associated with their success on the pitch. The study, published in the scientific journal PLOS ONE, shows that cognitive faculties can be similarly quantified and linked to how well children and young people do in the game.

“This is interesting since soccer clubs focus heavily on the size and strength of young players,” says study leader Predrag Petrovic at Karolinska Institutet’s Department of Clinical Neuroscience. “Young players who have still to reach full physical development rarely get a chance to be picked as potential elite players, which means that teams risk missing out on a new Iniesta or Xavi.”

Executive functions are special control functions in the brain that allow us to adapt to an environment in a perpetual change state. They include creative thinking to quickly switch strategies, find new and effective solutions, and repress erroneous impulses. The functions depend on the brain’s frontal lobes, which continue to develop until age 25.

How the study was done

For this study, the researchers measured certain executive functions in 30 elite soccer players aged between 12 and 19. They then cross-referenced the results with the number of goals they scored during two years. The metrics were taken in part using the same standardized tests used in healthcare.

Strong results for several executive functions were associated with success on the pitch, even after controlling for other factors that could conceivably affect performance. The clearest link was seen for simpler forms of executive function, such as working memory, which develops relatively early in life.

“This was expected since cognitive function is less developed in young people than in adults, which is probably reflected in how young people play, with fewer passes that lead to goals,” says Predrag Petrovic.

Importance of executive functions

The young elite players also performed significantly better than the average population in the same age group on several tests of executive function. Whether these faculties are inherited or can be trained remains the object of future research, as does the importance of the different executive functions for the various positions on the field.

“We think that the players’ positions on the pitch are linked to different cognitive profiles,” continues Dr. Petrovic. “I can imagine that trainers will start to use cognitive tests more and more, both to find talented newcomers and to judge the position they should play in.”

Edublox offers cognitive training and live online tutoring to students with dyslexia, dysgraphia, dyscalculia, and other learning disabilities. Our students are in the United States, Canada, Australia, and elsewhere. Book a free consultation to discuss your child’s learning needs.