What Makes An Elite Soccer Player’s Brain Different From The Rest Of Us - Forbes

It’s not every day that Real Madrid get thrashed 4-0.

But that’s what happened to their under-19 side in the quarterfinals of this year’s UEFA Youth League.

The side who beat them, and who also beat Barcelona 3-0 in the previous round and trounced Eintracht Frankfurt 5-0 in the round before, is Netherlands side AZ Alkmaar.

AZ don’t have the resources of Real Madrid, or even domestic rivals Ajax and PSV. Instead, they’ve harnessed the power of the brain.

Elite soccer players’ brains are wired differently from regular people. So differently in fact, that even if you have the physique, the ball control skills and the strength and speed of a professional soccer player, if your brain isn’t also on that level, you won’t make it as a pro.

AZ know this. Their scouting network tests potential youth players for their cognitive ability through tests run by Dutch company BrainsFirst. This allows them to select “technically, tactically, physically and mentally outstanding talents,” who also have the cognitive ability to play elite soccer.

BrainsFirst’s founder, Eric Castien, explains how elite soccer players’ brains are wired differently, not just from the average person, but also from exceptionally smart people such as surgeons, top bankers and flight controllers. The speed that soccer players’ brains process information significantly outperforms these groups.

Castien says there are three key traits for an elite soccer player’s brain: Responsiveness, which is the extent you can make quick decisions in an environment with lots of information; the speed at which you can do simple or routine actions; and the working memory overview, the amount of information you can memorize, retrieve, apply and combine at the same time.

In short, elite soccer players aren’t necessarily smarter than other people, but their brains, in certain aspects, operate much, much faster. They basically solve complex problems automatically, without consciously thinking about them.

As Castien puts it, elite soccer players not only need the right physical attributes and determination, but also “need to be outliers cognitively.”

Several clubs in the Netherlands, as well as others in Europe like Real Sociedad in Spain and Southampton in England, have been using BrainsFirst to test their current and potential youth players. Castien says that while the brain develops at different speeds in the early teenage years, by the age of around 15, it is stable enough for them to make reliable predictions about someone’s potential cognitive ability when they reach 23 or 24.

Through research over 2014-19, they found that youth players in the top third for cognitive scores when initially tested had an average market value that was around seven times higher than the youth players in the bottom third for cognitive scores.

When it comes to different positions on the pitch, soccer clubs generally want tall goalkeepers, fast, skillful wingers, strong defenders, and midfielders who can run all day.

Different positions also require different cognitive attributes.

For goalkeepers, Castien says anticipation and responsiveness are important, midfielders need a strong working memory overview, while wingers need mental flexibility and control automatism, the ability to do things on “autopilot.”

To play the type of soccer that the likes of Manchester City play though, where players switch positions at ease and play something similar to the Dutch “total football” style of soccer, players need a strong all-round cognitive profile and be able to process large amounts of information automatically.

This is the kind of profile that AZ have looked for in their youth players. By having players who are strong all-round cognitively, they are able to play a fluid style where players effortlessly switch positions. Real Madrid’s youth side contains players like Tobias Vinicius, who the Spanish club could end up spending more than $18 million to sign permanently. But AZ showed how having the best soccer brains can help their youth team not only compete with the likes of Barcelona and Real Madrid, but beat them comprehensively.