Updated: Apr 17
by Brandon Ally & Scott Wylie, S2 Cognition
WHAT IS ATHLETIC INTELLIGENCE OR ATHLETE IQ?
The concept of IQ has an interesting mystique in sports. What exactly are we talking about when we say an athlete has a high “Sports IQ”? At S2 Cognition, we’ve spent a lot of time thinking about, studying, and discussing this with some of the best minds in sports. We previously wrote about the 5 buckets of athletic performance (see that article here), where we describe a TACTICAL bucket, which is filled with things like game knowledge, experience, and situational awareness. While there may be some genetic component to these things, we speculate that tactical game knowledge comes from thousands of hours of game experience, watching game film and learning from it, paying attention to coaches and mentors, and applying that to play. When watching basketball, a player who routinely makes the right decision for a given situation is described as having a “high basketball IQ.” For lack of better terminology, we think people use IQ here as a descriptor of “sports related smarts” because we know making the right decision in a split-second based on what they see has very little to do with actual IQ.
DOES SPORTS IQ HAVE ANYTHING TO DO WITH TRADITIONAL IQ OR INTELLIGENCE?
In classic psychology and neuropsychology, IQ (or intelligence quotient) broadly encompasses human “reasoning skills” that unfold over seconds to minutes, where an individual typically can think through and monitor their decisions. Classic measures of IQ (from tests like Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale, Stanford-Binet, Raven’s Progressive Matrices, the Wide Range Intelligence Test, RBANS) assess concepts like vocabulary, arithmetic, memory for pictures or designs, putting blocks together to match a pattern, mental rotation of objects, pattern matching, completing mazes, very simple reactions, or matching symbols with numbers as quickly as you can over tens of seconds (which is often called “processing speed”). Even IQ tests used in the sports world (Wonderlic, AIQ) are still based on classical IQ methods (e.g., mazes, learning lists of words, reasoning answers to questions, picture matching) and theories (e.g., Cattell-Horn Model of Intelligence), so it’s not surprising that they correlate with traditional IQ. While these measures are important to understand a person’s ability to operate in the world and everyday life (and perhaps understand and digest things like the playbook), they have limited application to speed and complexity of playmaking and split-second decision-making in the sports arena.
To that end, research has shown little evidence that intelligence or IQ score is correlated with individual fast-paced decision-making aspects of cognition. Anecdotally, we’ve likely all known athletes who struggled to perform in the classroom but crushed it on the athletic field, or vice versa, crushed the classroom but couldn’t get it done on the field. To support this anecdotal assertion, we can examine some of the known Wonderlic statistics and analytics in the NFL. The Wonderlic is scored from 1 to 50. Psychometric data from the company shows that the average score is 24 and scores 10 and lower suggests someone who is unable to read or write. The following table taken from Paul Zimmerman’s, “The New Thinking Man’s Guide to Pro Football” shows the average Wonderlic score for various professions as well as specific positions in football (scroll right if on mobile).
This is a powerful graphic to show that despite Wonderlic scores (a measure or proxy for IQ) below the average score, football players are still among the best athletes on the planet who execute speeded decisions and reactions with exceptional skill. IQ measures simply don’t capture the kinds of rapid processing that these athletes engage during play. In fact, multiple research studies show the absence of correlations between IQ performance on a test like the Wonderlic and performance on the field. In contrast, decades of research shows that specific rapid cognitive skills can predict on-field performance in a variety of sports. As an example, S2 Cognition showed that Wonderlic score (a measure of intelligence) predicts less than 1% of career passer rating in quarterbacks in the NFL while the S2 Overall Score (a composite measure of 9 independent cognitive skills) predicts about 29% of career passer rating (read that study here). Therefore, it’s a tough argument to make that classic measures of IQ are meaningful in the sports arena.
S2 COGNITION's ATHLETE IQ
As we discussed, measures of IQ were developed to capture how human beings reason, understand, and solve everyday sorts of problems and situations. They simply weren’t designed to measure split-second kinds of processing. Even the hardware used to administer IQ tests (iPads, everyday computers, paper-and-pencil tests) lacks the precision to measure the split-second processing athletes make during play. For example, consider the traditionally used Mazes task performed on an iPad or in paper-and-pencil format. An athlete studies the maze, makes an initial route decision, scans to see if the route will be blocked, may back up and take another route, looks ahead, studies some more, and over tens of seconds works through the maze to the end. Very few (if any) sports offer this amount of time to reason through the situation during play. Additionally, if an athlete is slower on the Mazes task, what is the reason? Was the athlete slow to make the movements, slower at scanning the maze, impulsive in their decisions, less skilled at spatial reasoning – any one of these reasons can affect performance. You can see how IQ measures provide very broad insight about everyday sorts of reasoning, but seldom give the kind of precise information about why an athlete may struggle on the field or court. So what value is traditional IQ in sports? A high IQ will likely be beneficial to how quickly the playbook is learned or how easily complex concepts and schemes are understood by the athlete. That’s not to say athletes with lower IQ can’t learn the playbook or abstract concepts, it just might take them longer to digest or may be less stable over time.
IQ is often (sometimes intentionally) confused with or labeled “cognition,” but to measure the rapid, super-human processing that athletes use during play, we must turn to the science of Speeded Cognition. This science focuses on the brain systems that are critically involved in split-second processing, rapid decision-making, and sub-second reactions. This is the unique approach behind S2 Cognition. Measuring speeded cognition requires a completely different set of tools and hardware capable of precise measurement of processing decisions and reactions in the millisecond range (tasks in a speeded cognition battery require response times in the sub-second to sub half-second range). When we talk about an athlete who plays with great anticipation, instincts, field vision, and improvisation, this is the athlete’s ability to process information and act in sub-second time frames. Speeded cognition tasks, for example, can measure the amount of time it takes you to visually process a tight passing window in less than 50 milliseconds or the amount of time it takes to redirect your motor system when fooled by misdirection. [As an example of a speeded cognition test in the S2 baseball battery is the Perception Speed task, which requires athletes to report the missing corner of a diamond that is flashed on the screen anywhere from 15 one thousandths of a second to 2 tenths of a second.] In contrast, the iPad can take 50 milliseconds to simply register a response and cannot accurately control for things like travel distance/time in how far off of the iPad each player holds their finger.
While we have shown in previous articles that cognitive process can be predictive of on-field performance, high scores aren't always synonymous with high athlete IQ or athletic intelligence. Just because an athlete’s brain can process visual information and control motor reactions quickly, does not mean that they can learn complex schemes and playbooks or have the game experience to adjust their application of this knowledge during play. As we alluded to in the beginning of this article, to have a high sport-specific IQ, they have to have a mechanism for obtaining and maintaining sport-related information and a full tactical bucket filled with game knowledge, expertise, situational awareness, and approach. To be a complete high IQ athlete that performs with the best on the field, you have to be able to EXECUTE on this knowledge and experience. When most folks refer to an athlete with high sports IQ, they are probably speaking about a concept that is multifactorial. That is, a high sports IQ relies on at least a few different abilities. Below we describe 3 dimensions or pillars that likely contribute to the concept of sports IQ.
PROPOSED 3 PILLAR MODEL OF SPORTS IQ
1. The Learning of Game Knowledge (concepts, schemes, and strategy)
The primary ways athletes learn game knowledge are through coaching, playbook learning, practice, and repetition. When we speak of athletes with high sports IQ, there is certainly an aspect that appreciates that the athlete “knows” the rules, schemes, and strategy of the game. In other words, their ability to learn, comprehend, and absorb the complexity of the sport stands above others. This is the aspect of sports IQ that may actually depend at some level on measures of traditional IQ and potentially underlies weak relationships to on-field performance. Athletes who can reason and think at a higher, more abstract level will probably learn football knowledge faster, retain more details, and understand the most complex of playbooks. Certainly, an IQ-based test like 3D mental rotation can align with understanding spatial alignment and how certain visuo-spatial pieces fit together when understanding complex schemes, but during performance, no athlete has the time to think through and match visual representations in game. We can think of the first pillar as the rule book. Obviously it is good to know the rules, but unless you have the experience and ability to rapidly execute during play, your journey in athletics is likely to end as an analyst or fan.
2. The Shaping of Game Knowledge Through Experience
It is simply not enough to learn and regurgitate the rules of the game. Watching and learning from situational sport and experiencing the game through play elevates the rules to higher levels of situational awareness and approach during play. When we speak of athletes with high sports IQ, we are also talking about athletes who have developed a feel for the game that has been honed over thousands of hours of “live” experience seeing, recognizing, and making adjustments during practice and play. “The game is the best teacher” because the “game” or play is where studied knowledge is fine-tuned, sharpened, and applied to fit certain situations. The game brings surprises, unscouted and unscripted looks, unexpected situations, and violations of an athlete’s expectations, all of which contribute to the athlete’s growing database of experiences. One aspect of Pillar 2 that we measure at S2 Cognition is Instinctive Learning. This is an element of game knowledge that happens during play where athletes who are exceptionally skilled at Instinctive Learning notice subtle patterns, tendencies, probabilities, and cues that emerge during performance. That is, they can stitch together less obvious relationships about situations, actions, and outcomes quicker than other athletes, which gives them a big advantage in making in-game adjustments. The S2 Cognition poster boy for Instinctive Learning is former NFL and future Hall of Fame quarterback, Drew Brees. Brees scored better on Instinctive Learning than any other athlete or individual across 9 different sports, the military, fighter pilots, gamers, and law enforcement (30,000+ tested) - and this showed on the field in his ability to exploit tendencies of the defense and adjust play accordingly as the game went on.
3. The Execution of Game Knowledge Using Speeded Cognition
While game knowledge and experience probably account for a lot of what it means to have high sports IQ, there is a third factor that must also be considered: speeded cognition on the field. An aspect of what it means to have a high sports IQ is the ability of the athlete to make remarkably fast, accurate, and consistent decisions. It’s one thing to know what to do, but it is a entirely different thing to actually do it in sub-second time frames in a visually dynamic, pressure-filled performance situation. There are a lot of coaches in sports who have incredible wells of knowledge (Pillar 1) and intuition/situational awareness about the game (Pillar 2), but who may have struggled to execute that knowledge in the game as a player. So, at certain levels, a high sports IQ may simply involve knowledge, experience, and intuition. A more advanced conceptualization of sports IQ and what enables them to play at the next level, includes these dimensions plus the ability to execute them in real time with split-second precision.
Every sport has athletes that seem to understand the game at another level, make adjustments as the game goes on, and execute decisions with exceptional speed and consistency. High sports IQ isn’t simply intelligence or even cognitive-based tasks that capture thinking or reasoning skills. Ultimately, you’d like high IQ athletes to be able to execute their sports-specific intellect on the field in the timescales required for success. We propose that the combination of all three pillars listed above (1. Learn, 2. Shape, 3. Execute) represents the ultimate high sports IQ athlete.
About Brandon Ally
Brandon has a PhD in neuropsychology and cognitive neuroscience and has published more than 50 peer-reviewed articles and book chapters on brain mechanisms underlying visual attention, perception, and memory. He is the co-founder of S2 Cognition, a sports-science company that delivers a leading cognitive evaluation and technology platform to teams and athletes across all major sports at every level of play.