The results of these studies show that executive function is clearly linked to game intelligence and that elite soccer players outperform their non-elite peers on these measures. Our study showed that the performance on these tests also predicted how many goals a soccer player 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 soccer players we tested.

The science of teams

Soccer is not only about individual players, but more about how the individuals fit the team. Ongoing research in our laboratories focuses on identifying the different brain profiles of players in different positions on teams.

Our initial results suggest that successful midfielders such as Xavi and Iniesta 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 the 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 neutralizing 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 soccer 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 soccer players at an early age, or testing and selecting from the large, untapped pool of soccer ability in a global soccer world. We expect that soccer players 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 for 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 soccer fans everywhere crave.

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