Attention and Motor Inhibition give the Sporting Edge.

A few months back I wrote about how mindfulness can improve “athletic coping skills” and boost sporting performance through improved training, reducing psychological distractions during events and also reducing decision-making errors.

I recently came across this paper from the Netherlands looking at the relationship between Executive Function and successful performance in sports; particularly in team sports requiring quick anticipation and adaptation to continuously changing situations in the field: “Executive Functioning in Highly Talented Soccer Players” Lot Verburg et al; 2014, Published by PLoS ONE 9(3): e91254. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0091254. Here.

NB: “Executive Function” is our ability to cognitive control of behaviour: selecting and successfully monitoring our behaviours to facilitate the attainment of chosen goal – e.g. such as our ability to focus, to avoid distraction and our “willpower” to succeed. I have written about Executive Function here:

This research sought to compare Executive Function within a group of eighty-four highly talentedy youth academy soccer players and forty-two age-matched amateur soccer players. Could such testing identify young talented athletes?  This is a key challenge in sports, because identifying young athletes at a young age helps them to promote their further development by selectively offering them the best training facilities, coaching, and support.

The research measured different aspects of Executive Function including “reaction time”, “attention”, “motor inhibition” and “working memory”.  “Motor inhibition” is the ability to suppress an ongoing motor action… in sports such as soccer, motor inhibition plays an important role because frequently, motor actions must be suppressed due to rapidly-occurring changes in the field (e.g. a deflection of the ball or an unexpected change in player motion or positions).

So what did the research show? Well, it turned out that the significant differentiators that clearly identified the elite players were “attention” and “motor inhibition”. The elite players had a better and sustained ability to pay attention and they were more able to intervene and to modify (or inhibit) an intended motor action.   The researchers conclude that:

“Highly talented youth soccer players outperform youth amateur players on suppressing an ongoing motor response and show superior ability to attain and maintain an alert state, both of which may be essential to success in soccer. Importantly, these results are also relevant to other team sports such as field volleyball, rugby, and basketball. “

This research raises two possibilities – first such testing could form part of the selection process for elite programmes’; and second, such programmes should train participants to improve their attention and motor inhibition skills. 

I would add two comments:

  • If a club or academy is to invest in young athletes, then besides measuring “attention” and “motor inhibition” skills as described above,  it seems sensible to measure their “grit” (will power), their resilience  (to deal with pressures),  their willingness to learn through sustained effort and the “coachability” (“Athletic coping skills inventory”) of candidates… rather than simply focusing on their current sporting ability.
  • Too many young people are selected for such schemes only to be subsequently “let go” …which can be devastating for them.  Only a few weeks ago the papers reported the suicide of an ex-apprentice from the Manchester City FC Academy who had struggled to deal with life following termination of his place at the academy.   A more accurate method of selection would mean that organisations could work with fewer athletes and thereby reduce the number to be subsequently “let go”; and so improve the resources that can be made available to help them to move on.


(1)     Grit is passion and perseverance for long-term and meaningful goals. It is the ability to persist in something you feel passionate about and persevere when you face obstacles. This kind of passion is not about intense emotions or infatuation. See

(2)     The Brief Resilience Scale (BRS) was created to assess the ability to bounce back or recover from stress. Its psychometric characteristics were examined in four samples, including two student samples and samples with cardiac and chronic pain patients.

(3)     The Athletic Coping Skills Inventory 28 (“ACSI-28”) is a highly validated psychology assessment that measures an athlete’s psychological coping skills in seven key areas. Developed by Smith et al. (1995), the ACSI-28 helps guide athletes who are interested in gaining more understanding and clarity around these mental skills that can impact performance.

(4)     To measure motor inhibition, the Stop Signal task was used. The task involved go trials and stop trials. Go trials consisted of a drawing of an airplane presented in the centre of the computer screen either pointing to the right or to the left and requiring a spatially compatible response on one of two response devices. A fixation point preceded the go stimulus. Stop trials consisted of a go trial and a stop signal (a white cross superimposed on the airplane), presented after to the airplane. Participants were instructed not to press either of the two buttons, when they saw the stop signal. The stop signal was presented after presentation of the airplane with an initial delay of 175 ms. If the response to the go stimulus was inhibited successfully, the delay was lengthened by 50 ms. If the subject failed to inhibit the response, the delay was shortened by 50 ms. This resulted in an average success rate around 50% on stop trials (for a detailed description of the paradigm see [25]). The task consisted of two practice blocks and three experimental blocks. The first practice block consisted of 32 only go trials. The second practice block consisted of 32 trials including 25% stop trials. Experimental blocks consisted of 64 trials and also included 25% stop trials. The dependent variable that reflects the latency of the inhibitory process is stop signal reaction time (SSRT). SSRT was calculated by subtracting average stop signal delay time from mean reaction time (MRT) calculated for correct responses on go trials. Shorter SSRTs reflect a faster and more efficient inhibitory process. Additional dependent variables derived from the Stop Signal task were MRT and the percentage of errors. Additional dependent variables derived from the Stop Signal task were MRT (measuring response speed) and the percentage of errors (measuring response accuracy). Errors were commission errors (left-right mistakes) on go trials, or omission errors on go trials (failing to press either button).