Brain Functions & Soccer Skills: An In-depth Analysis

Research of the brain's role in soccer skills development.

Have you ever wondered how our brain functions relate to specific tasks, like keeping a soccer ball airborne? A groundbreaking German study from April 2019 has shed light on this fascinating connection. Let’s explore how brain studies in sports, especially in soccer, can unveil the intricate relationship between cognitive abilities and motor skills.

Read more: Brain Functions & Soccer Skills: An In-depth Analysis

The Intrigue of Brain Studies in Sports:

Studying the brain’s role in sports performance is always intriguing. Top athletes are frequently subjected to brain scans or undergo neuropsychological evaluations. Pioneers in this field, Vestberg and Verburgh, have predominantly focused on footballers, comparing their current performance levels to neuropsychological test outcomes. However, what’s missing is research linking these results to sport-specific motor skills. In other words, how does working memory, for instance, relate to ball skills or dribbling? The University of Cologne has now made the first scientific leap in this domain.

Essential Concepts in Sports Brain Research:

Motor control, perception, and cognitive functioning are crucial for team sports athletes. These foundational terms recur in many research introductions. To clarify their significance, scholars often lean on the contributions of their peers. Hans Erik Scharfen and Daniel Memmert’s recent research pays homage to Vestberg and Verburgh’s studies. Vestberg suggests a causal relationship between executive functions and soccer achievements, measured in goals and assists. Verburgh believes top soccer talents notably excel in ‘motor inhibition’ (delayed decision-making). While professional soccer players score above average in reaction speed and memory, it’s not statistically significant. Contrarily, Balakova et al.’s 2015 study found no differentiation between talented and non-talented youth soccer players concerning visual working memory, reaction speed, or attention. However, when anticipating movements, top talents do stand out. More on this later.

A Deep Dive into Scharfen and Memmert’s Research:

Scharfen and Memmert observed 19 youth talents from a German professional academy (Average age: 12.72, SD=0.45). To map out brain abilities, they utilized neuropsychological tests like the Attention Window task, Working Memory Span test, Perceptual Load test, and the Motion Object Tracking test. In addition, they administered motor performance tests capturing soccer capabilities: 10 and 20-meter sprint tests, slalom test, dribbling, ball control (passing test), and juggling. They analyzed all scores using SPSS.

Table representation of the brain's role in soccer skills development.

Research Outcomes:

A significant finding indicates a positive correlation between the Attention Window Task and a player’s dribbling skills. Additionally, results from the working memory task correlate positively with dribbling, ball control, and juggling abilities. This correlation, the researchers suggest, is because footballers process multifaceted information during matches – the environment, opponent, and ball. However, when consolidating all findings, no statistical significance is found between all brain functions and motor skills (0.614). For instance, although Verburgh emphasizes the importance of ‘inhibition’ for top talents, this study found no connection. This discrepancy might be due to the selected field test choices, which are mostly isolated exercises. To measure facets like inhibition, which involves decision-making restraint, exercises involving quick changes or defenders (like SMARTGOALS) are essential. This limitation is recognized by the study’s authors, acknowledging they’ve only assessed a small aspect of the multifaceted world of soccer.

Personal Reflection:

I’m genuinely captivated by Scharfen and Memmert’s research. This study marks the first bridge between scientific testing and on-field application, an undoubtedly challenging endeavor. I concur with the conclusion emphasizing the need for more extensive research, shifting focus from isolated tasks to actual small-sided games or matches. While it’s straightforward to measure a 10 or 20-meter sprint, is cognitive function really needed for such a task? All things considered, this research offers an excellent foundation for transitioning scientific insights to practical on-field applications.

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