The Psychology of Sports: Football Edition

Now that my football team, trounced and eliminated, is out of the NFL playoffs, I have time to speculate on what may be the most cerebral sport of all. Thinking about complex cognitive processes as my day job, I’m often struck by how little we understand about how to break down cognition into its constituent parts. Navigation provides a wealth of examples. To find a new restaurant, I must recall its name, locate myself with respect to it, plan a route, execute that route, operate a vehicle, identify the name on the sign of the restaurant, etc. Breaking down this fairly complex task into its constituent parts is difficult, but possible in theory. Excitingly, we’re getting much closer to discovering whether our proposed deconstruction of such tasks is actually how the brain solves such problems (see a few articles published in a special collection here, for much more detail).

But back to football – a recent article in the New Yorker by Nicholas Dawidoff asks “What Makes a Football Player Smart?” and traces out some of the answers to this question – adaptivity, pattern recognition, decisiveness. Some of these are measured directly by a standard psychological measure of intelligence called the Wonderlic. In football, tasks (as cognitive psychologists might call them), like planning and executing offensive attacks and defensive schemes, are fairly complex, but could be amenable to the same type of deconstruction in my earlier navigation example. The quarterback must decide, for example, based on defensive formations he has seen an opposing team use in past games (on tape) and on previous drives (live and up close), whether there are holes in the routes his receivers are running, or if a blitz is likely, or if he audible to a run. He must remember the strengths and weaknesses of his teammates and the opposition to uncover favorable matchups. If he selects a pass play, he must remember which order to scan his receivers during their routes and decide which throw he should make, whether he should scramble, throw the ball away, take a sack, etc. The result of each play can be construed as the sum of many cognitive processes.

Intelligence is a difficult word to define. So difficult, in fact, that one famous definition by Martin Gardner delineates multiple intelligences (and an overarching general intelligence factor called “g”). What Dawidoff’s article leaves open is how well the Wonderlic, a timed 50-item test involving many different kinds of items, actually measures “football intelligence” – or in terms of  what owners and coaches actually care about: football success. And is “football IQ” at one position equivalent to “football IQ” at another? The fast-twitch decisions a quarterback must make might differ greatly from offensive linemen knowing who to block and where.

I’ve written previously about the increasing use of statistical analyses to predict and prescribe success in sports. But I’m very curious about the potential role cognitive requirements play in various sports. Measuring cognition has increased its precision greatly in the past few decades and could offer good insights into the types of (potentially trainable) cognitive skills that sports certainly require, and may hone.


2 thoughts on “The Psychology of Sports: Football Edition

  1. Then they use brute strength to knock out, push, shove, jump over or on . Give me baseball for decision making and strategy and grace and prowess and last minute decision making.

  2. Right – baseball incorporates a lot of the same preparation (especially pitcher/hitter matchups). But baseball occurs, relatively speaking, much more slowly than football. There’s time between pitches, batters, innings, etc. to make adjustments alongside coaches and managers who can signal in at anytime. In football, players are allotted 40 seconds between plays, and cannot communicate with coaches during that period. Heavily cognitively demanding, in part, because of the time restrictions.

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