Danny Jackson on the Pitch
Danny Jackson on: For Elite Players, Smarts Equal Success on the Field
Daniel (Danny) Jackson is a former Major League Soccer (MLS) player and was captain of the Seattle Sounders. SN is pleased to bring readers Danny Jackson’s column with insights into the professional world of soccer.
A recent study conducted by the Karolinska Institute in Sweden got me thinking about premier soccer players and intelligence.
The study, which eviscerated the stereotype of the dumb jock, found that athletes actually exercise their neurologic pathways along with their muscles. Researchers found elite soccer players demonstrated above-average cognitive abilities, particularly in the area of executive function: creative problem solving, multi-tasking, inhibition and working memory (the ability to recall and apply previously stored information on-the-spot).
The study did not resolve the classic “chicken-and-egg” question of whether smart players simply perform better, or whether playing premier soccer makes players smarter. The researchers credited both – a combination of good genes and excellent training.
I found this interesting because it’s definitely been my experience that skilled players do exhibit a high level of cognitive intelligence. The best players are crafty, quick and can easily analyze situations, apply knowledge and problem-solve. They make decisions with lightning speed, and have great capacity for tactics and strategy.
That said, superior cognitive abilities – and executive function – on the field do not correlate to academic success in the classroom, in my experience. When I was growing up, playing competitive soccer in England, I had two sets of friends: sports friends and school friends. My school friends were a competitive bunch, academically, and a positive influence on me. I competed in the classroom like I did on the field.
My soccer friends were street smart: funny, socially aware, intuitive and comfortable with attention. They were students of the game, no doubt, and intensely interested in the minutia of tactics and strategy.
They were able to quickly absorb and apply information they found personally compelling. But they were not as inspired by math and science; they were all about soccer. Many dropped out of high school; in Europe and South America, talented young players can leave school at 16 years old. Many never complete their educations, even as they succeed in pro soccer.
There’s a choice to make in England – academics or athletics. There is no gray line. And players who are given the opportunity to become a professional player through the youth academies take that chance, and try their best to turn it into a golden ticket.
I was a mix. I worked hard to get good grades, but when given the chance to sign for Leeds United as a full-time youth player, there was only one choice for me. I always tried to apply my love of classroom learning to soccer and become a true student of the game. I tried to listen, learn, think and apply the information that was provided to me.
And after my pre-professional training at the Leeds United Academy, college soccer in the US became a realistic option. This was an ideal situation for me – mixing high-level academics with top-quality athletics.
I made college a priority, traveling to the U.S. to play soccer and study at the University of North Carolina. Getting a degree was important to me, and I wanted to develop my academic skills along with my sports career.
Regardless of whether superior cognitive abilities on the field translate to other arenas, I can say with certainty that they often lead to longer playing careers and coaching. Players who study the game, and employ an intellectual, analytical approach, often go on to become great coaches and managers.
Look at Jose Mourinho of Real Madrid, Arsène Wenger of Arsenal and Alex Ferguson of Manchester United – all extremely gifted in decision-making, analysis and strategy. I can’t tell you whether they were equally talented in the classroom, but these cagey, smart, aware coaches have definitely applied a deep intelligence to the game. (Other top players have immense ability on the field, but can’t explain the hows and whys to others; these naturally gifted folks just can’t understand why it’s not easy for everyone.)
The larger reality is that soccer has changed drastically in the past 50 years. Now, everyone has to play and coach in a smarter way. In the 1960s and ‘70s, players in England could eat their steak and potatoes, have a nip of whiskey, and then play.
You were thrown out onto a muddy field with the ball and told to run up and down. Tactics have always been a vital part of the game, but then, a “workman”-like approach was often enough.
Foreign coaches were really starting to impact English soccer when I entered the youth ranks at Leeds United in 1996, bringing a more scientific approach to training.
That methodology wasn’t introduced immediately to our groups of players – we were still expected to run until we puked. Pre-season was a scary period – a time most players dreaded. I remember, in my first year, crawling to the bathroom to take a shower, so hot water could soothe my aching muscles and loosen them up. We were pushed to the max from day one, and we quickly became incredibly sore. Many players suffered injuries. And that was just the way it was.
But in my second year, things started to change. We started to lift weights to strengthen our bodies in the right way, and our endurance training increased over time. Our coaching staff employed the knowledge that muscles need rest after they’re torn up, in order to regenerate and aid in explosiveness.
There was a sense that we should try to peak six weeks after pre-season training began, with the first official game. Players became more protected and suffered fewer injuries. We stretched religiously before practice and games. I have to say, I was lucky to never pull a muscle with serious consequences, perhaps due to the healthy habits I developed during this time.
The soccer world was changing around us; sports laboratories in Munich and Milan were studying how players should train, build muscles and eat. Sports scientists were amassing knowledge on how to teach the body to work optimally and maximize strength. This technical, science-based approach has allowed many athletes to play longer, with fewer injuries.
The game has become quicker, more technical. And now, with the incredibly gifted and smart Jürgen Klinsmann heading the U.S. National team, this country’s approach will grow ever more scientific and innovative. Coaches, trainers and players at soccer’s highest levels are simply becoming more aware, applying technology, study and the freer flow of information to step up their game.
Now, athletes are constantly exploring ways to optimize performance, employing nontraditional forms of flexibility and strength training, like yoga. Ryan Giggs, a 38-year-old star with Manchester United, is one player who started doing yoga early on and credits the practice to extending his career. Players and coaches have a larger worldview on athletic training. The focus is on evolution, improvement and enhancement.
Top athletes’ bodies are finely-tuned instruments; players like Cristiano Ronaldo, LeBron James and Lionel Messi combine an intense level of science, training and natural ability to reach new heights of athleticism and achievement. There are so many superior athletes now, all pushing and training to grow better and faster. Average players are able to become good, good players excellent, and excellent players superior. Our knowledge base is global now, and the lines are less abrupt between training philosophies in England, France, Germany, Spain, the USA and elsewhere in the world.
So whether superior cognitive abilities are developed or inherited, premier players are simply expected to be smarter these days. At the highest levels, everyone is on the edge of sports science, looking to deliver peak performance.
Premier soccer is continually morphing, refining and developing – and the sharpest players will continue to increase their level of play, stay healthy and achieve more and more success.
Danny Jackson's recent coaching experience ranges from youth soccer at Eastside FC and the Sounders FC / ODP youth development program and speaks to high schools and youth clubs regarding the far reaching impacts of youth sports. Danny also is serving as the Director of New Business for Korrio.