The relevance of cognitive skills in football

The professionalization of athletics among athletes is now almost fully developed. Now the focus is shifted to the still diverse potential of the brain. Joachim Löw, for example, says that there is still “infinite scope” for the development of thinking and perception processes and that these will have to be intensively trained in the future in order to bring not only the body but also the head to the highest level. He also demands that football players, like chess players, plan up to twenty moves in advance. So it's about players being able to make decisions faster and better in game situations.

Michael Löbbert, sports medicine specialist and neurologist, puts it in a nutshell: “The bottom line is: you not only need sport to promote cognition, but also cognitive training to optimize sporting performance.” ( Source: RP-Online )


The term “cognition” is used in sports psychology as a collective term for the reception, processing, storage and forwarding of information within sporting activities. The term therefore targets the first two points of the graphic: situation awareness and analysis (perceiving) & mental solution (decision).

Sports science research has shown that cognitive abilities in athletes are the decisive factor for top performance (Source: Williams, MA, Davids, K., & Williams, J. (Eds.). (1999). Visual perception and action in sport. London: Routledge). Cognitive abilities are the biggest difference between professional and amateur athletes. Professional athletes recognize situations and game patterns much faster than amateur athletes, which is crucial for anticipation in football. They recognize movement patterns of teammates, opponents and the ball and assess their processes above average and make decisions accordingly. In addition, they also use different search strategies. This means that players can change perception depending on the situation. In order to recognize tactical patterns in 11vs11, they process different information than in micro-situations of 1vs1 or 3vs3. They have the ability to absorb the right information, focus on it specifically and ignore unnecessary information, such as calls from outside or unevenness in the place (inhibition). ( Source: Williams, AM, 2000 ).


In a correctly perceived situation, a player may come across different possible solutions, as in the game situation shown below. He now also needs decision-making skills to carry out one of the three actions. Dribbling, passing into depth or passing to the outside:

In order to make a decision, the player calls up previous experiences that are stored in the brain's working memory. But what are experiences? Experience is general, the knowledge or skills acquired through perception and learning. In a game situation, it also influences how often the player has already successfully carried out a possible action and how emotionally linked it is to him. This is also stored in his working memory.

If a player makes a decision consciously, this leads to time delays because he had to weigh up decisions.
If, on the other hand, a player makes decisions intuitively, i.e. unconsciously, the stimulus processing is significantly faster and the player acts immediately. This is often the case when the player has already experienced these situations many times and no longer has to consciously recall his experiences, but rather makes them instinctively. However, if this player finds himself in even more complex situations in which he has less experience, his processing processes will also be delayed and he will make a decision later. (Source: Miyake, Friedmann, Emerson, Witzki, Howerter & Wagner, 2000; Diamond, 2013)

Players must therefore constantly be faced with new situations in which they must quickly recognize complex relationships and act accordingly. The ability to mentally switch between different tasks is called cognitive flexibility and enables the player to quickly adapt and adapt to new requirements. The player with these skills can therefore switch between tasks mentally flexibly and quickly as situations change.

Cognitive abilities are therefore made up of three factors

cognitive flexibility – adapt to new game situations
– Take the perspective of other players
- Make decisions
Inhibition – Control impulses
– Dealing with errors
– Draw attention to relevant information
Working memory – memorize rules
– remember commands
– think and act strategically

Source: Walk et. al, science, practice, funding examples 2013

Dr. Peter Görlich from TSG Hoffenheim says that today there is hardly any physical difference between an 18-year-old NLZ player and a professional, but that young players make wrong decisions in game situations up to 40% more often than professionals. That's why it's so important to improve perception functions. (Source: Görlich, TSG Hoffenheim, own study, https://www.digitale-exzellenz.de/smart-data-revolution-im-fusball/ )
The majority of thought processes in football are carried out unconsciously and automatically, as many situations have already been trained for years. According to Prof. Dr. Jan Mayer believes that conscious thinking, which is significantly more strenuous and takes longer, will be implemented more quickly in the future. (Source: Mayer, https://www.bdfl.de/images/ITK/2018/Mayer_2018.pdf )

The training of executive functions is therefore given particular importance. However, Prof. Jocelyn Faubert and Lee Sidebottom from the Université de Montréal note in their article for the DFB Academy that there are currently few training resources that coaches can fall back on. (Source: Prof. Faubert, Sidebottom, 2019) . We were now able to change this with RESWITCH!

“The game is getting faster and faster, the rooms are getting smaller. Who will act fastest under this time pressure? Who has solutions ready? That's the future. Cognitive areas, that’s what you have to train in the U-teams”

Joachim Löw
Author: Jonas Kumpan

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