Updated: Apr 19
by Brandon Ally, S2 Cognition
It’s fairly easy to spot athletic talent. We’ve all seen kids as young as 6 completely dominate the local YMCA gym or the 8 year old who rakes, batting .800 and making every play in the field… even if the ball isn’t hit to him. Physical skills often rule the day among youth leagues. Middle school is where these individual differences are most glaring. There could be a 6th grade boy shaving and weighing in at 200lbs while another 8th grader still has the face of an elementary schooler, and height and weight to match. But as those physically dominant players climb the athletic ladder, other aspects of performance become more important. Through years of collecting data, what we’ve noticed is that at the high school level, physical skills can often dominate. Athletes who are faster and stronger can impose their will, without much emphasis on decision making. However, at the college level, particularly in Power 5 conferences, decision-making and cognition, mechanics, and psychological make-up can no longer be ignored. At the pro level… no matter what the sport, you MUST have the complete package.
After a few years of working with scouts, coaches, and front office personnel, we began to easily conceptualize 5 different components or “buckets” of athletic performance these evaluators were interested in. The 5 buckets make up the complete athletic package. We like to use the analogy of buckets, because every individual will have their buckets filled to different levels (with no athlete on planet earth having all 5 filled to the rim), and the goal of training is to put as much in each of the five buckets as possible. The intent of this blog is to briefly discuss the 5 buckets, with particularly emphasis on cognition.
The first bucket, which was mentioned above, is the PHYSICAL bucket. This bucket encompasses things like strength, speed, balance, power, etc. The higher the level of play you attain, the more the physical characteristics are measured and analyzed. In football, we see very specific details like 40 yard dash speed, cone drills, even hand size being measured. In baseball and softball, we see metrics like exit velocity, bat speed, and jump performance commonly being measured. At S2, we understand that this bucket is necessary, but not sufficient to define an athlete. In other words, you need to have the requisite physical characteristics for your sport and position. An athlete cannot be 5’9” 140 and be an offensive lineman in the SEC even if all the other buckets are filled to the brim. Conversely, if the physical bucket is the only one that is filled, that athlete will be just as unlikely to continue to excel and climb the ladder in their sport.
The second bucket of athlete performance is the MECHANICS bucket. In this bucket falls things like technique, form, flexibility, kinetic and kinematic chains, etc. Again, like physical characteristics, this bucket is fairly well measured and trained in sports. It becomes more important and measured in detail as the athlete climbs the sports ladder. Emphasis on mechanics becomes high at the college and professional level, spending hours on footwork, hand position, movement, etc.
The third bucket is the TACTICAL bucket. This bucket is filled with things like game knowledge, expertise, situational awareness, and approach. This bucket highlights the tacit knowledge acquired through game experience, watching film, and studying different aspects of the game. Tactical game knowledge is essential as the athlete progresses and the game gets more complex. Despite being difficult to objectively measure, it’s likely what people refer to as sport-specific IQ or sport smarts. When someone in basketball has phenomenal situational awareness and always seems to make the right play for a certain situation, he/she is often described as having “high basketball IQ.”
The fourth and fifth buckets have often been lumped together because they both are 1) potentially difficult to objectively measure and 2), reside “between the ears.” The fourth bucket of athlete performance is the PSYCHOLOGICAL bucket. This is where the field of sports psychology resides and focuses on the “mental” side of the game. Things in this bucket are emotional regulation, response to failure, motivation, resiliency, confidence, anxiety, leadership, character, grit, etc. In general, these are traits that ultimately make up an athlete’s personality. Personality is typically measured using subjective questionnaires and can affect behavior on and off the field. The psychological characteristics are what typically frustrate coaches and can be a defining line between those who are elite and those who never quite get there. Sports psychologists have played a major role in supporting struggling athletes during times of inconsistent performance, the yips, or when having difficulty adjusting to the next level.
The final bucket of athlete performance is the COGNITIVE bucket. While cognition has been studied in academic labs around the world for decades (if not centuries), it’s relationship to sports hasn’t been applied until recently. Cognitive traits in sports had not been measured outside of the laboratory and since there was no specific application or understanding of them, the sports world just labeled them as “instincts.” While listening to sports commentary, you often hear comments like, “plays faster than his/her foot speed,” “has a nose for the ball,” “has eyes in the back of his/her head,” “can see the field well,” or even the more sophisticated “eye-hand coordination” or “anticipation.” These “instincts” or characteristics have underlying cognitive processes governed by the brain. The bucket of sports cognition is filled with things like perception speed, visual search efficiency, trajectory prediction, distraction control, impulse control, improvisation, and risk tendency. These cognitive processes typically occur in less than half of a second and direct behavior/action.
Cognitive traits can separate athletes, even at the highest level. For example, baseball players with high performance on measures of visual perception speed are the ones who can “see spin” and process pitch type in less than a quarter of a second. Wide receivers with high performance on measures of decision complexity can filter through layers of “if-then” rules within half of a second to execute the correct route decision based on what the defense does in the split second post snap. Soccer goalies with high performance on impulse control measures can inhibit the instinct to go in the direction of the fake and quickly redirect their motor system to block the score attempt. And finally, golfers who score high on measures of angle judgment can read the green and anticipate subtle changes that require adjustments to the swing path. These COGNITIVE skills are important to the overall “makeup” of an athlete’s performance. While an athlete can experience success by concentrating on filling the other 4 buckets, it is the 5th bucket, the Cognitive Bucket, that we feel is the game changer. Strong cognitive skills are what can separate the best from the rest.
INTELLIGENCE AND PERFORMANCE
We wanted to quickly address the topic of IQ. We do not consider IQ to be a bucket of sport performance (it should be noted that intelligence and IQ tests are often, and sometimes intentionally, confused with cognition). Global intelligence can be a contributing factor to an athlete’s success, much like it can contribute to a person’s overall success in life. It can contribute, but it is not required. In classic psychology and neuropsychology, IQ (or intelligence quotient) broadly encompasses human “reasoning skills” that unfold over seconds to minutes, where an individual typically has the opportunity to reason and monitor their response. Classic measures of IQ (from tests like Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale, Stanford-Binet, Raven’s Progressive Matrices, the Wide Range Intelligence Test, RBANS, and AIQ) assess concepts like vocabulary, arithmetic, memory for pictures, word lists or designs, putting blocks together to match a pattern, completing mazes, or coding different symbols that are associated with a number over a certain period of time (which they call “processing speed”). While these measures are important to understand a person’s ability to make sense and operate in the world and everyday life (and perhaps understand and digest things like the playbook), they have limited application to play-making and rapid split-second decision-making in the sports arena. At game speed, athletes typically do not have time to “reason.” As an example, scientists have identified 4 to 5 cognitive skills that occur in less than 400 milliseconds (less than half of a second) to hit a 90 mph pitch in baseball. There are no measures of athlete IQ that play a role in identifying pitch type, location of the pitch, or speed of the pitch, in this timeframe (and frankly, there are no measures of IQ that are administered or acquired on this timescale).
To that end, research has shown that intelligence or IQ score is not highly 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. To support this anecdotal assertion, there have been a number of academic studies to show IQ is not correlated with on-field performance metrics. In contrast, there has been decades of research showing that specific cognitive skills can predict on-field performance in a variety of sports. As an example of this, S2 Cognition has shown that Wonderlic score (a measure of intelligence) predicts less than 1% of quarterback performance in the NFL while S2 Overall Score (a composite measure of 8 independent cognitive skills) predicts about 29% of quarterback performance in the league (read that study here). We wanted to quickly address the topic of IQ, but don’t really place it in the 5 buckets of athlete performance. We will address athlete IQ in the context of game smarts and cognition in a separate article.
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 and Vice President 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.