Inside a champion's head

·6 min read

“It’s beautiful this velodrome stadium that’s always full both at home and away”, “don’t kill your chickens before they hatch”, “it was the last straw that added fuel to the fire”, “we have to learn to not play in the gapes”, “it’s us who won”... out of respect, we won’t cite the authors of these little gems that have come from the mouths of top athletes. Over time, such verbal assaults on common sense – and grammar – have brought discredit to the intellectual aptitudes of the sporting aristocracy (whether they wear cleats or not).

Despite the erudition of Sócrates, the legendary former captain of the Brazilian football team, the footballesque-existentialist-prophetic discourse of Marcelo Bielsa, the university degrees held by Thierry Dusautoir (engineering) and Mario Ančić (law), and Tony Estanguet’s masters in marketing, as well as a stockpile of other examples to the contrary, they just can’t shake the stereotype. In our collective imagination, athletes have “a huge puddle of water between their ears, and we can hear it slosh when they cough”, as stated by the illustrious Monsieur Manatane. The process is often impetuous and, at the very least, unfair. If it’s true that elite athletes sometimes mangle the rules of syntax or have learning gaps in history and geography, they nonetheless have remarkable brains.

Thus, in recent years, a number of studies have provided evidence of their exceptional mental capacities. One of these, carried out by the Karolinska Institute in Sweden and published in the prestigious PLOS ONE scientific journal, revealed the difference in cognitive abilities between players in the premier league in Swedish football and the second league. Result: the players in the elite Scandinavian football league out-perform their counterparts in the league below by a significant margin.

Iniesta, the genius

To obtain these results, the research team led by psychiatrist Predrag Petrovic got all of the players to take a series of tests. Mathias Pessiglione, neuroscience researcher and co-head of the Motivation, Brain and Behavior team at the Brain Institute explained, “This was a battery on cognitive control (or executive function) tests. These tests are often used in clinics, especially in neurology, to measure damage to the brain. But they can also show the capacity a person’s brain has to control ‘low level’ reflexes. They evaluate abilities such as mental flexibility, visual-spatial attention and working memory.” And in those realms, some of the football masters had truly staggering scores.

Andres Iniesta
According to a Swedish study, the former midfielder for Barça is in the top 0.1% of the most intelligent people on the planet. (Credit: David Ramos - FIFA/FIFA via Getty Images)

Mathias Pessiglione told us that, after his study on Swedish soccer players was published, Barça invited Petrovic to test all of the players in the club. At that time, the midfielders Xavi and Iniesta obtained the best scores. If we projected the global population onto a range divided into milliemes, or one thousand parts, Xavi’s score would rank in the top one hundred units. Iniesta would be in the top millieme.” These results didn’t really surprise the researcher that much: “When we look at these players’ profiles, it seems pretty coherent. Anyone who has seen him play knows that Iniesta is a formidable orchestra conductor. He could, for example, make blind passes easily, as if his brain were able to analyse the position and movement of the players on the field at any moment.”

Air traffic controller or midfielder?

The ability to assimilate a large amount of incoming and outgoing information, process it correctly and find solutions in a limited amount of time is the secret power of Barça’s former master, and star player of 2009. And obviously, amassing trophies isn’t the only use for this type of skill. As the researcher pointed out, “Air traffic controllers are far removed from the football pitch, but the abilities they rely on are equivalent. They need to know the position of all of the planes in the sky, direct the traffic, and communicate quickly and effectively. In the end, they have the same type of brain as the great football midfielders.”

However, as there are two sides to every coin, the brains of elite athletes are also subject to the same traumas as those of overworked business execs. Mathias Pessiglione and his team have also looked closely at this phenomenon. Last year, researchers at the Brain Institute responded to an invitation from the National Institute for Sports, Expertise and Performance (INSEP). Their goal: to elucidate the mystery of overtraining, a type of burnout that particularly affects athletes who practise endurance sports.

Mathias Pessiglione and his colleagues suggested the hypothesis of cerebral fatigue to explain it. “In these sports, it’s inevitable that at some point the muscles and joints will start aching. The brain’s basic reflex, when that happens, is to send a message saying ‘stop’. In order to continue the effort and be effective, you have to be able to counteract this low-level reflex through an effort of control – or we might say willpower. Endurance athletes have developed this capacity to an art. But our system isn’t indestructible: if we push it too far, we will eventually exhaust it. And that is overtraining syndrome.”

Beef up your brain!

To verify their theory, the researchers at the Brain Institute pushed triathletes to their limits. After three weeks of strenuous training, 15 hours per day, the MRI revealed exactly what the researchers suspected: “Certain regions of the brain that deal with cognitive control – zones in the prefrontal cortex just behind your temples – were overloaded”.

If it can be detrimental to train too intensely, there is, on the other hand, incontestable proof that regular physical activity provides beneficial effects. Especially in relation to certain illnesses: “We have noted that athletic activity has a positive impact on nervous depression in young people, and on the prevalence of cancers, cardiovascular and neurodegenerative diseases in older people”, confirms Mathias Pessiglione. But that’s not all. We are now sure that sport improves certain cognitive abilities.

“We can measure this phenomenon by MRI. We even observe anatomical changes in the prefrontal cortex, which increases in volume if someone trains for long enough.” By comparing the volume of grey matter in twins between the ages of 32 and 36, when one of the twins has practised a physical activity during the three years preceding the test, Finnish researchers were able to establish a significant increase in the more athletic twin. In fact, the brain produces growth factors such as neurotrophin and BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor), which stimulate synaptic plasticity and the formation of new neural circuits.

However, the difference won’t turn a jogging enthusiast into an algorithmic virtuoso. Mathias Pessiglione qualifies his remarks: “The improvement is significant, certainly, but we shouldn’t confuse significance and effect size. The effect is measured – you’re not going to go from an F to an A+ in maths – but it is real. If you give executive function or mental flexibility tests to a large number of people, on average, you’ll note a slight improvement in those who perform regular physical activity.” So you know what you need to do: get up (regretfully) off the sofa and put on your running shoes. You might never rub shoulders with the frontrunners of the New York marathon, but the next crossword puzzle you tackle may have met its match.

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