The quiet genius: why we shouldn’t expect players to have insight in to football.
A few weeks ago, psychologist Torbjörn Vestberg, visited me and the futsal team I train on Monday evenings. The effect on the kids as he started talking to them was powerful. Malena Johansson, journalist from the Swedish national newspaper Dagens Nyheter, who came to document our meeting described it beautifully
The words ‘Xavi’ and ‘Iniesta’ had an immediate effect on the 12-year-old players’ brains. Torbjörn Vestberg stands in front of the team in the changing room and the atmosphere in the room changes the moment he tells them that he has tested the two Barceolna stars intelligence.
“Do you know them?”, asks one of them, wide-eyed.
The boys who, only a few seconds ago, had been boisterous and noisy behind the the changing room doors as they waited impatiently for the training session to start, now sit bolt upright, in their uniformly black football strips, on the wooden benches in the spartan room. They listen, as if preparing for an otherworldly revelation, as the psychologist who has tested the superstars starts to talk to them…
Torbjörn’s message was powerful. He told them that everyone has the mental ability to be a top player. It isn’t about training the brain to be better, but about understanding what you as a player experience as difficult and finding the solutions.
When Torbjörn tested Xavi and Iniesta, he found that they both ranked highly in completion of a task that involves connecting dots in as many different ways as possible. This tests the ability to find new solutions and surpress already used solutions. More scientifically rigorous tests (tests on individual players tell us very little) show that the youth players who score most goals are very good at this task and at another test of working memory.
I had devised a challenge for the boys. Torbjörn could only test one of them, so I set up a line of cones with a goal and keeper at the end. The player who could dribble fastest round all the cones and score could take the same test as the Barcelona stars.
The winner (narrowly) was Edvin, a left-footed player who now usually plays as defensive midfielder in football and as a single defender at the base of a diamond in futsal.
When I told him he was fastest, Edvin looked disappointed.“But does this mean I won’t get to train as much as the others today…”, he asked.
I had to remind him that this was the exact same computer on which Xavi and Iniesta had used. Reluctantly, he went back to the changing room to complete the test.
Earlier I had talked to Torbjörn about his research. I wrote about it previously in the Pro edition of Soccermatics, describing how it was intelligent players that were the future of football. Talking to Torbjörn in more depth now I discovered there were some subtlties in that message. He said that we shouldn’t expect football players to verbalise what they do, to be able to explain their decision-making to us. He said that sometimes coaches prefer the kids who are good at talking about the game, who reliably repeat back the purpose of different exercises to their trainers. The Swedish national training plan, for example, encourages these types of discussions. On the pitch, coaches want to see their players talk to each other. But Torbjörn’s research indicates that this type of verbal intelligence is not important to predicting future performance, it is instead working memory that is the key.
Torbjörn was concerned that the players that were now being chosen for academy positions were talking their way in using verbal intelligence, just as there has previously been a tendency for the stronger, more physical players to push their way in front of their peers.
Often when I discuss the intelligent football player concept I hear Wayne Rooney mentioned as a sort of contradictory joke, his interviews provided as evidence of his intellectual failings. At the other extreme, I have read about Romelu Lukaku mastery of languages and Juan Mata having a university degree, as examples of intelligent footballers. For Swedes, Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s quick wit is seen as an extension of his quick foot movements on the pitch.
What Torbjörn’s research shows is that there is not likely to be a relationship either way about how we express ourselves and how we play. Torbjörn saw a danger of “over intellectualising football”. He said that a player like Messi would be lost in an environment where are ability to communicate about the game was thought to reflect how well we can play. He saw little point in post match interviews and is often annoyed by TV and newspaper commentry on football. The genius of a player isn’t shown in how they explain what they have done, it is captured by their actions on the pitch and the many hours of training exercises that have shaped those actions.
Edvin is certainly never lost for words, before, after or during our training sessions. But that wasn’t the intelligence that he had now been tested on. I wasn’t there to see Torbjörn present the results (I had 12 other boys to take care of) but Malena described it in her article.
Edvin was average in the number of questions he got correct, but was two standard deviations better than the population average in how quickly he produced answers. He listens as Torbjörn Vestberg shows him the results, and gives his own concise summary,
“I am fast at thinking out what I should do?”
While Edvin nods, Torbjörn Vestberg explains a way he can improve.
“You are incredibly fast, a lot faster than most of the people I have tested. So you can just take it a little bit easy, and use some of that brain power to get it right more often instead. That way you will be even more successful in what you do.”
Under these test conditions it isn’t, of course, possible to draw any scientific conclusions but the test result concurred ridiculously well with the fact that Edvin had won the dribbling competition.
“He has a superfast brain, more than I told him, like … bloody fast” said Torbjörn Vestberg when Edvin had gone back to training.
I was proud of Edvin who I, together with a bunch of other dads, have trained since he was six. He won the dribbling competition narrowly and I am sure several other of the lads would have done well in the working memory test. It isn’t just the training we do, but the hours they spend together in the classroom doing schoolwork, in the playground playing football and online in the evening on Fortnite. They have a culture where they are competitive, but supportive. Being a coach (and a parent) isn’t so much about what you tell your kids, it is about providing an environment where they have the best chance to develop themselves.
Putting my scientific hat back on, I want to stress that Torbjörn Vestberg’s research, now published in Swedish in the book Hjärnboll (Brainball), is just a starting point for a real understanding of the connection between the brain and football. It dispells some myths, but we don’t yet have a firm grasp on how to systematically improve players’ decision-making. In a way that very much parallels my own experience within football analytics, despite the massive amounts of money in the game and the potential payoffs for solid research, researchers like Torbjörn and myself do our football science as a side activity, with clubs making only token, short-term investments in research and development.