Head Games: Pro Soccer Players Have Sharper Mental Skills

Soccer players run after a soccer ball.
Better soccer players have better cognitive skills, a study suggests. (Image credit: <a href="http://www.shutterstock.com/gallery-72627p1.html"> Nagy Melinda</a>, <a href="http://www.shutterstock.com/index-in.mhtml">Shutterstock</a>)

It might be tempting to portray professional athletes as "dumb jocks," but new research proves that experienced soccer players have impressive brain functioning and executive-level cognitive skills.

Researchers at Brunel University in London were trying to determine what makes one soccer player better than another, particularly at anticipating and responding to another player's moves, CNN.com reports.

To find out, the researchers placed 39 players of different experience and skill levels in functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scanners. The fMRI machines were outfitted with video monitors showing video clips of a soccer player dribbling a ball toward the players whose brains were being scanned.

Each player was then asked, while watching the videos, to decide how they would respond to the other player's moves, while the fMRI recorded their brain activity. (In soccer, players often try to "fake" a move to throw off a competing player, pretending they're about to kick the ball to the left, for example, while actually planning on kicking it to the right.)

The study, which was published in the Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, revealed that soccer players with greater experience and skill levels were far more accurate at predicting the on-screen player's moves.

According to the report's authors, the better players showed more activity in the areas of the brain associated with high-level executive functioning and eye-muscle coordination than did the brains of less-experienced players.

"Our neuroimaging data clearly shows greater activation of motor and related structures in the brains of expert footballers, compared to novices, when taking part in a football-related anticipation task," Daniel Bishop, lead author of the study, said in a statement.

This report adds to a growing body of knowledge about the inner workings of talented athletes' brains. A study from Scientific Reports found that professional athletes process complex visual scenes faster than amateur athletes, and much faster than nonathletes.

Will brain researchers soon be part of the training squad at elite sports organizations? Perhaps, Bishop told CNN.com. "I can see top teams employing neuroscientists in the future."

"We believe this greater level of neural activity is something that can be developed through high-quality training, so the next step will be to look at how the brain can be trained over time to anticipate the moves of opponents," Bishop said in a statement.

Contact Marc Lallanilla at mlallanilla@techmedianetwork.com. Follow him on Twitter @MarcLallanilla. Follow LiveScience on Twitter @livescience. We're also on Facebook & Google+.

Marc Lallanilla
Live Science Contributor
Marc Lallanilla has been a science writer and health editor at About.com and a producer with ABCNews.com. His freelance writing has appeared in the Los Angeles Times and TheWeek.com. Marc has a Master's degree in environmental planning from the University of California, Berkeley, and an undergraduate degree from the University of Texas at Austin.