Torbjörn Vestberg is a psychologist whose work focuses on the brain's executive functions. He is the lead author of the study Executive Functions Predict the Success of Top-Soccer Players, which looked beyond physical abilities and motor coordination to examine the importance of general executive functions to the success of football players.
Recently, he has been in Barcelona, working with the famed midfield pair Xavi and Andres Iniesta. At the same time, he's been analysing the decision-making processes of Sweden's special forces, with whom he sees a connection to footballers. I spoke to Vestberg about the idea of the footballing brain.
Could you tell me what your professional background is?
I'm a licensed psychologist. I come from the clinical side of things. My specialty is nervous psychology, like ADHD, Asperger's syndrome, psychosis and so on. In every moment, we have a million 'inputs’, or pieces of information, to take in. As a small child, you learn which information is important to survive. You learn to select. Psychosis patients pick up the wrong thing and process the information in the wrong way.
And that is applicable to the football pitch because you have innumerable options and you have to try to make the right decision
Exactly. I was looking at the way you make decisions. You take the information, you process the information and then you make a decision. That's why I started to think about football players. To be successful, you have to be in the right place at the right time and make the right decision. I got in touch with men and women's teams across Sweden. I measured the executive functions of a lot of the players and followed them for three years. What we found out is that these players have tremendous executive functions compared with the normal population.
What does intelligence on the football pitch have to do with intelligence as it is conceived in the rest of society?
Executive function does not correlate with IQ. IQ is much more about knowledge. Of course, footballers can sound stupid because often they haven't been educated well, but the pace of a footballer's brain is stupendous. If I wanted someone to be an operational manager, then I would use a footballer – a guy with a brain like that.
So to be a clever footballer means making decisions far quicker than the average?
Yes but it's not only that. I also measure footballers aged 12 to 19. Children that are very successful in football have a very good working memory so they can use it to make one decision. Working memory is like a desk where you keep a lot of information that can be accessed.
The tricky thing is that when you become a professional, working memory is not enough. You need two more skills: one is response inhibition – the ability to stop what you were doing and change your mind. This is important because you can make a decision but then suddenly a defender comes along to block your way and you have to stop what you're doing. Most of us make a decision and then go for it. In football, response inhibition is very important, especially when you are a playmaker. Xavi is tremendous at this.
The other additional thing you need as a professional, which is even more important, is creativity. When you're a child, it's enough to be very fast with your working memory and to make one decision, because the other children don't think as fast. Later on, your brain needs to have the creativity to make a lot of possibilities. What we found out with the players at the highest level, like Andres Iniesta, is that only one in a thousand people can conceive of the number of possibilities he can in any given situation.
How do you actually test all these abilities? In the video of you and Xavi, he is connecting lots of white circles to one another in various different patterns…
What you saw in the video of Xavi and me was an example of something that looks good on camera. We have a battery of different sorts of tests and all these tests are used on the world's populations, they aren't secret but you must be a psychologist to be allowed to use them. What we're now working on in Sweden is emotional regulation, something we tested on Xavi and Iniesta. Using computers, we can see how people regulate their emotions.
So, staying calm in a game, for example?
Yes. Xavi is the fastest sportsman I've ever seen when it comes to regulating his emotions. I've only seen that speed in the special forces.
Do you see a similarity between the way those two groups of people – footballers and special forces – think?
Yes, yes. It's about game intelligence. Controlling your emotions, making successful decisions and having a lot of creativity.
On the football pitch, different positions require different functions. What cognitive skills do you need in which positions?
A striker can be average in response inhibition but must have a very high level of creativity, as well as having the ability to constantly take in a lot of information and be very fast at making a decision. If you are a playmaker, it's very important to have the inhibition skill. You have to stop and try a new idea if something comes along to negate your first decision. The most successful defenders are extremely good at stopping and changing their decisions. They are in the level of one in a thousand.
Can you train this?
To be frank, no one really knows. We're trying to find out, with special forces and with footballers, what is actually possible to teach and grow. What we think we know is that if you have deficits as a child you can work to grow your working memory. But we don't know what is possible with grown ups. The tricky thing here is whether you can train in one area and take that training and apply it to another.
Which comes back to what would happen to someone like Xavi in some other walk of life, if he hadn't been brought up playing football all the time. Would he be successful?
Of course… To make a lot of decisions and to be creative and to find solutions: these are all things that top footballers can do.