Brain’s Secrets in Soccer: An Insight into Prefrontal Cortex Activity

Soccer Player Brain Function

The world of soccer is not just a display of physical skills but also a testament to cognitive prowess.

Read more: Brain’s Secrets in Soccer: An Insight into Prefrontal Cortex Activity

A study titled “What happens in the prefrontal cortex? Cognitive processing of novel and familiar stimuli in soccer: An exploratory fNIRS study” by Schmaderer, Meyer, Reer, and Schumacher, published in the European Journal of Sport Science in 2023, delves into the fascinating world of cognitive processing in soccer players, offering new insights into the brain’s functioning during the sport.

Exploring the Cognitive Skills of Soccer Players

The importance of perceptual-cognitive abilities in soccer players has been a subject of much research. These skills are crucial to players’ expertise, yet the understanding of the underlying cortical mechanisms, especially in the prefrontal cortex, has been limited. This study aims to fill that gap by analyzing prefrontal activity during general and sport-specific cognitive tasks.

Methodology: Combining Soccer with Neuroscience

The study involved 39 semi-professional soccer players who underwent four perceptual-cognitive tests. Two tests assessed general cognition, while the other two focused on sport-specific cognition. Unique to this study, some tests were conducted in motion, reflecting the dynamic nature of soccer. Prefrontal activity was recorded using functional near-infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS), offering a window into the brain’s workings during these tasks.

Key Findings: The Brain’s Response to Novel and Familiar Stimuli

The results showed significant increases in prefrontal activity during general cognitive tests involving novel stimuli compared to sport-specific tests with familiar stimuli. This suggests that the lower prefrontal activity during sport-specific cognition could be attributed to the learned automatisms of experts. These findings align with the “repetition suppression theory” and “neural efficiency theory,” highlighting how the brain optimizes its processing through repetition and familiarity.

Implications for Understanding Sports Expertise

The study’s findings have far-reaching implications. The differential prefrontal activity in response to general versus sport-specific tasks suggests that certain cognitive processes become more automatic and efficient in trained athletes. This efficiency might be a key factor in sports expertise, indicating that experience and training can physically alter the brain’s functioning to enhance performance.

Broader Impact in Team Sports

The research contributes significantly to understanding cognitive processing in team sports. The different cortical processes observed could be due to altered prefrontal structures in experts, potentially representing a crucial factor for achieving expertise in team sports. These insights can guide training methods and cognitive strategies to enhance performance in soccer and other team sports.

Why This Research Matters

In competitive sports like soccer, cognitive abilities are as crucial as physical skills. Understanding how the brain processes different types of stimuli and tasks can help in developing more effective training regimens that improve both cognitive and physical aspects of the game. This study not only contributes to sports science but also to the broader field of cognitive neuroscience.


“An exploratory fNIRS study” by Schmaderer and colleagues is a pioneering study in the intersection of neuroscience and sports. It sheds light on how the prefrontal cortex responds to different cognitive demands in soccer players, offering insights into the neural basis of sports expertise. For coaches, players, and sports scientists, these findings open new avenues for enhancing cognitive skills in soccer, leading to better performance and deeper understanding of the brain’s incredible capabilities in sports.


Schmaderer, L., Meyer, M., Reer, R., & Schumacher, N. (2023). What happens in the prefrontal cortex? Cognitive processing of novel and familiar stimuli in soccer: An exploratory fNIRS study. European Journal of Sport Science, 23, 1-11.

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