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Why IQ is Losing its Place in Sports

Updated: Apr 19, 2023

by Brandon Ally, S2 Cognition

A recent debate has taken flight on social media. I stumbled onto several posts (and many, many replies) debating which quarterback possesses a higher IQ: Joe Burrow or Patrick Mahomes? On the surface, it's an interesting question, and my guess is that those posing the question use the term “IQ” to refer to everything that happens “between the ears”. The reality is IQ is just one way to carve up what happens between the ears and, in fact, is very limited in capturing the cognitive processing and decision-making that happens on the field.

So, if the true purpose of this debate exists to determine which QB is more equipped for success based on their ability to make game-winning decisions at game-speed, we need to get more specific than IQ. And before we can get more specific, we probably need to spend a little time understanding and discussing the kinds of split-second decisions related to sports performance, and more specifically, the QB position.

IQ vs. Game-Speed Decisions

In classic psychology and neuropsychology, IQ (or intelligence quotient) broadly encompasses human "reasoning skills." More detailed models, like the Cattell-Horn theory (circa 1941), distinguish two components of intelligence, more flexible problem-solving skills that they call "fluid intelligence" and knowledge-based abilities that one would learn in a classroom that they call "crystallized intelligence." Classic intelligence measures assess concepts like vocabulary, arithmetic, memory for words and lists, putting blocks together to match a pattern, mazes, or coding different symbols that are associated with a number. While classic intelligence measures are important to understand a person's ability to make sense and operate in the world and everyday life, they have limited application to play-making ability and decision-making on the football field.

And while IQ might contribute to a QB's efficiency at learning new plays and digesting more abstract concepts and schemes, it is NOT what gets the job done on the field. Head knowledge and reasoning skills that unfold over tens of seconds to minutes are not the same as executing decisions and reactions in sub-second timescales. Just because a player knows the play doesn't mean he can execute it under pressure. Ask any coach.

It's the Milliseconds that Matter

So, what decisions does a QB need to make on the field? As examples, QBs have to quickly locate a target in visual chaos, dynamically track multiple players moving across the field, filter through "if-then" decision rules as the defensive coverage unfolds, control the impulse to throw into coverage, and quickly improvise an alternative response when there is a busted play. These cognitive processes unfold in milliseconds, unlike classic intelligence measures that unfold in seconds or minutes. A QB may make 9 cognitive "decisions" in the average play from scrimmage that lasts 3 to 4 seconds. A hitter in baseball may make 5 cognitive "decisions" in the 400 milliseconds (less than half a second) to hit a 95 mile per hour fastball. These precise measurements cannot be captured using paper-and-pencil, tablets, or just any computer connected to the internet. Milliseconds matter on the field, and milliseconds matter in assessing these cognitive skills. Classic intelligence measures or book smarts just don't have the resolution or precision to capture these basic cognitive processes. They were set up to detect broad differences in thinking ability. In fact, the psychometric properties of any test with IQ in the title will have most individuals scoring in the low-to-high average range (82.6% of those tested, in fact). Using standard IQ measures to determine an athlete’s ability to process game-speed action is like using an X-ray to locate a 1mm tear in a ligament, or like timing the 40-yard dash using one Mississippi, two Mississippi…

Fortunately, cognitive neuroscience has been investigating split-second perception and human decision-making skills in research laboratories around the world for decades. Tools have been designed to quantify these decision skills with millisecond level precision. These are cognitive skills that players use with and without awareness to accomplish the superhuman performance they display in the game.

Moving Beyond the IQ Score

In sum, the sports world would benefit from moving beyond discussion of, and reliance on, generic measures of IQ or tests that measure everyday thinking skills. These represent just a small piece of the decision-making demands of a QB. Just look at the Wonderlic, which is strongly correlated with IQ, and the current dissatisfaction with its ability to predict anything on the field. In fact, a quick Google search of Wonderlic scores show that if IQ predicted performance on the field, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Greg McElroy, and Blaine Gabbert should be the Hall of Fame QBs, while Dan Marino, Jim Kelly, Terry Bradshaw, and Donovan McNabb should be back-ups at best.

We've tested both Joe Burrow and Patrick Mahomes using cognitive science measures that capture the split-second decision skills needed to play. These guys are wired differently than most humans, and they are elite in the NFL. And despite both scoring in the upper 90th percentile range on The S2 Eval, they bring slightly different cognitive skills to their games. Just one example - Burrow is off the charts in how fast he can notice subtle tendencies and cues of the defense and in his ability to track how and where players are moving across the field, while Mahomes is off the charts in his ability to quickly scan and locate targets amid visual chaos and in the speed with which he makes and executes improvised reactions. Their IQ and book smarts really don't matter, but when it comes to processing and executing split-second decisions, these are not your average Joes (or Patrick).

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.

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