Men’s Health magazine reported in 2012 that research by Predrag Petrovic (PhD and lead researcher at Karolinska Institute in Stockholm) concluded that soccer players score
within the top 2 to 5 per cent of the population when tested on memory, multitasking and creativity. Soccer is a rapidity changing game with quick movements of the ball, teammates and the opposition. It is a random game when compared to other North American sports such as NFL football or basketball where there are more stoppages and set plays. Petrovic argues that adapting constantly to a changing environment (which elite soccer players do) develops skills that are easily transferable to executive business functions such as changing strategies and suppressing old, out-dated plans.
We often assume that elite athletes depend upon their physical attributes more than their mental capabilities. However, to play sports at a high level, players face both physical and mental demands. Players require a high level of cognitive skills such as attention, memory and visual processing to read situations and make good decisions. They must also be capable of taking snapshots of information on the field, identifying patterns of play and making decisions on the best way to confront specific opponents.
In soccer, players have no option but to multi-task. They must combine agile physical movement with the ball with processing information on what space to exploit and how to respond to the efforts of opposing players, in order to keep possession and build attacks against the opposition. In an effort to teach multi-tasking we frequently ask our young players to juggle or pass a tennis ball while executing soccer movements. This is something that every young player could practice at home by themselves – juggling a tennis ball in their hands while dribbling at the same time.
The ability to successfully manage change is also an important attribute that should be developed by young players. Change in the soccer environment is not restricted to the rapid movements on the field. Young players have to be capable of adapting to changing positions and formations that they play. Their teammates may change from week to week or season to season, and the coaching staff that they work with also typically changes on a frequent basis. One minute they may be playing with a team in form, who are dominating opponents, and the next their team is struggling to keep the ball during games. Many young players also play on several different teams. For example, they can suit up for a club or academy team, a representative team (like district or regional) and a school team — all in the same week!
There is an old saying in soccer that if you stand still, you will be quickly overtaken. Young players should not avoid change, they should learn how to embrace it. Developing the ability to successfully manage change and improving memory, multitasking and creativity skills will see young players develop quicker than their peers. They will be “smarter” on the field than their opponents and this can give them critical performance advantages.