Faster in the Head: Can Video Games Make Football Players Better?
As football gets faster, teams are turning to cognitive training to help their players keep up, mentally. Does it work?
The Helix, courtesy of TSG Hoffenheim
The first half is almost over and I can't seem to prevent Adrian Beck, an attacking midfielder on Hoffenheim's U19 team, from scoring. Repeatedly. When he hits his third goal, his blond eyebrows scrunch up into a kind of nonverbal apology. Sorry, man.
Beck is 18. He's both very lean and extremely fast. I'm 31, and neither lean nor fast. Not that it matters. We're not outside. We're not even playing football—not real football, anyway. We're playing FIFA 2015 on an Xbox in an immaculately clean dorm room at the Hoffenheim Academy in Germany.
I thought I had a good chance of beating Beck, given my experience. I don't have the free time I once did, but when it comes to the FIFA video game series, I'm a crafty old veteran. I've been playing off and on since Beck was two years old. And like the old guy at a pickup game, I figured my wisdom would count for something.
It doesn't. Beck seems to know what I'm going to do before I do it. It's eerie. He dances through my entire team, again and again, sensing when I'm going to tackle, passing around my high-pressure defense before there's really any pressure at all. On the rare occasions I have the ball, he pounces on every pass. Even the good ones.
Maybe he spends endless hours playing. (He says he doesn't.) Maybe I'm rusty. (I'm definitely a little rusty.) Or maybe there's something more.
What if he's good at FIFA, in part, because he's good at football? Could his experience in real-life football help him to think faster in the game? And could that speed of thought work in the other direction, too?
A couple years ago, the coaching staff at Hoffenheim approached team psychologist Dr. Jan Mayer with a request: Could he teach players to think faster? The coaches, concerned about the quickening pace of the game, worried their players wouldn't be able to keep up, mentally.
Mayer was surprised. Like many sports psychologists, his work up to that point was rooted in concepts popularized by Timothy Gallwey's groundbreaking 1976 book, The Inner Game of Tennis, which discussed how to "quiet the mind" and get in and stay in "the zone." Speed of thought wasn't something Mayer had ever really considered. But he soon realized that was shortsighted.
Retired players are loathe to admit it, but the pace of top-level football has dramatically increased over the last 15 years. Comparing today's game to the football played in 2000 is a bit like comparing contemporary motor racing with its 1970s counterpart. The tracks are the same; the rules are the same; but everything now happens a whole lot faster. The players are much bigger, too, and the medical staffs at elite clubs are adjusting to a changing slate of player injuries.
The mental side of the sport must now adjust, too. Last year, German national team psychologist Dr. Hans-Dieter Hermann noted that the average per-player ball possession time for his squad during the World Cup had fallen from 2.9 seconds in 2006 to just 0.9 seconds in 2014: a more than threefold decrease in the time players take to make decisions, in just eight years.
"If the game is going faster, then it's not only a thing about muscles or running," Mayer says. "You have to be faster in your head.
"Perhaps you've heard of the book by Kahneman, Thinking Fast and Slow?"
We're in Mayer's office at the Hoffenheim training center in Zuzenhausen, a town of about 2,000 people in southwestern Germany, not far from Heidelberg, where Mayer earned his Ph.D in 2004. Now in his early forties, with receding, straw-colored hair, Mayer has been coming to this converted farmhouse office since he started with Hoffenheim in 2008.
Thinking Fast and Slow is an important touchstone for Mayer as he explains what he's doing in his "gamification lab." The book is a once-in-a-decade work of popular science, the kind that makes a lifetime of research suddenly accessible to the public. It's psychology's answer to The World and Dr. Einstein.
Thinking Fast and Slow describes two systems of thought that are at work in all of our minds, and the biases and conflicts these two systems sometimes produce. Here's how author Daniel Kahneman describes the two systems in the book:
"System 1 operates automatically and quickly, with little or no effort and no sense of voluntary control.
"System 2 allocates attention to the effortful mental activities that demand it, including complex computations. The operations of System 2 are often associated with the subjective experience of agency, choice, and concentration."
Now consider a professional footballer: a lot of what they're doing with the ball—what we refer to as technique—was internalized at a young age. When Lionel Messi makes defenders look like training cones, he's not spending time wondering where to touch the ball so it does what he wants. That's all automatic; it's all System 1. His ability to manipulate the ball technically is probably not very different from most other professional players. What sets Messi apart is his ability to rapidly make sense of his surroundings and then make a decision about what to do—to figure out the problem and find a solution.
"The greatest potential [for increasing speed of thought among professionals]," Mayer says, "is in faster perception, faster analysis, faster correct decisions, faster action. That's all in the slow thinking area, [System 2]."
Psychologists have known for a long time that elite athletes in ball sports score incredibly high in tests of what are known as "executive functions," specifically creativity, visual tracking, task switching, working memory, and emotional control. It's a kind of mysterious quirk: elite players are better at all of those things than you or I could ever dream of being.
Psychologist Dr. Torbjörn Vestberg testing Xavi
The question is, can you train executive functions—can you purposefully improve System 2?
The answer might be yes, and the training looks a whole lot like video gaming.
Since the earliest days of Pong, video games have been seen as essentially worthless. But the reality of what they do to our brains, and therefore their worth, is far more complicated.
Over the last half decade, psychologists around the world have been studying and testing our brains on video games. New research shows that elite action gamers—particularly those who play first person shooters, like Call of Duty—have a great deal in common with elite team-sports athletes when it comes to executive functions. (Other groups who share these mental traits? Special forces soldiers and air traffic controllers.)
Mayer excitedly hands me a series of academic papers, reading off the titles: Increasing Speed of processing with Action Video Games; Action video game play facilitates the development of better perceptual templates; Stretching the limits of visual attention: the case of action video games.
"Increasing speed of processing, task switching experience, object tracking," Mayer says. "All this stuff that we need on the field you can improve through actual video game play. And that's a scientific approach we're excited about.
"[Here at Hoffenheim,] we measured these executive functions too, and we saw the same [improvements] with the guys who are regularly in our gamification [lab]. We trained their brain: their information processing increased by about two percent—and 10 percent in concentration," based on their laboratory scores.
As if on cue, there's a tap on the window and we turn to see a face pressed up against the glass, hands cupping eyes to block the glare of the August sun. Russell Canouse, a 20-year-old American currently with Hoffenheim's second team, has arrived at Mayer's office—the gamification lab—for his mental training.
Mayer hands Canouse an iPad, and the broad-shouldered, 5-foot-10 defensive midfielder sits down at a desk and begins to play a game. It's not Call of Duty; there are no guns. Rather, there are a number of tiles, all but three or four of which are gray. After a moment, the colored tiles turn the same gray as the rest. The tiles then mix around for a few seconds, bouncing on the screen's edge. When they stop, Canouse selects the tiles he thinks were colored at the beginning of the exercise. It's a test of working memory and peripheral vision.
When he's finished, Canouse gives Mayer his score, which Mayer records to track his development. "They're not just coming here and gaming," says Mayer, referring to Russell's work on the iPad. "It's training."
Later, Canouse plays another game, this one projected onto the wall. It's meant to test his working memory and visual field by making him remember the location and type of different cartoon animals that appear in short scenes. I watch for a while as Canouse clicks on birds and otters and turtles colored blue and yellow and red. When he makes a mistake, he curses softly.
"Do you think it helps?" I ask.
Canouse doesn't answer right away. He's focused on the task. When the answer comes, it's in a slow monotone.
"I think if you do it often enough," he says, "you can definitely get something out of it."
The scientific community is only now beginning to understand the nature of executive functions, and how they relate to our ability to execute various real world tasks. Many questions remain. Torbjörn Vestberg, a prominent researcher, provides some examples: "There are some studies with young kids who have ADHD, really a deficit," he says. "You can have kids get a better working memory through these exercises. But how it really affects you when you have a real normal level? No one really knows. Or if you're grown up, [can you drastically improve?] No one really knows."
There is also the problem of linking abstract training with our human experience. Players are getting better at games like those Canouse played in Mayer's office, but does that reflect an improvement in overall cognitive ability, or are players just improving at the video game?
Mayer, when he began his work on thinking faster, believed it was an overall increase. Working with Hoffenheim's sponsor, the technology company SAP—billionaire Dietmar Hopp, Hoffenheim's owner, is an SAP founder—he turned a small room in a nearby building into a dedicated laboratory for multiple-object tracking. The room contains a curved, 180 degree, floor-to-ceiling screen known as the Helix. It was repurposed from a prototype product SAP developed for virtual conference calls, and Mayer boasts that it's the only device of its kind in the world. On the screen, different colored animated players move across the grass of a virtual stadium. The Hoffenheim athletes working with Mayer have to track them.
For the last several years, every player at Hoffenheim has gone through a series of diagnostic tests at the beginning of the season. Those who score on the low end—and some youth players—find themselves before the Helix. Some are skeptical, but Mayer says they come around to the idea of training on the big screen when they realize that the players who are the best on the field—like Hoffenheim's Sebastian Rudy, who also plays for the German national team—tend to score exceptionally well on the diagnostic tests.
There is some research suggesting that differences in skill among professional players correlates positively with test scores related to their general executive functions. But Mayer cautions that he hasn't established a scientific correlation between the skill level of a player on the field and a player's scores in the lab—at least, not yet.
What Mayer does in his lab would have, a year ago, seemed like an exercise based on pseudoscience: requiring players to train in the lab with little more than a hunch that it helped on the field. But last January, a Ph.D student in Montreal named Thomas Romaes published a paper that legitimized a large part of what Mayer is doing. The title is a mouthful—3D-Multiple Object Tracking training task improves passing decision-making accuracy in players—but the sports implications are potentially huge. It's the first study to show a transfer effect between laboratory training of executive functions and on-field decision making. Specifically, Romaes found that a group of players who participated in laboratory object tracking exercises—which are almost exactly like those Mayer carries out in the Helix—showed a whopping 15 percent improvement in their on-field decision making skills compared to control and placebo groups.
A demonstration of the NeuroTracker used by Romaes.
According to Romaes, many of Europe's top clubs, including Olympique Lyon and Manchester United, now use multiple-object tracking exercises in their training regimens. Competition demands it; today's cutting edge is tomorrow's old hat. This scrambling for an advantage seems inevitable, even though there's much about the way humans think we simply don't understand.
Vestberg, who has not yet read Romaes' study, remains unsure how much improvement cognitive training can actually produce. "Maybe the brain is more like a muscle," he says. "You can train the muscle to grow, but you have a certain limit."
Some people, he explains, are naturally stronger than others. The same is true in your brain. "I don't think that by training you can be the best in the world. You're born with it, in a certain way."
I ask Vestberg if he thinks Barcelona legend Xavi—whom Vestberg has tested—was born with his special skills.
"I'm sure of it," he says. "I mean, in Sweden—I don't know how it is in Germany—but in Sweden everyone [believes] you can make it by training and education. But I don't believe it. If you're a world star, then you're born with it to a certain level. But nobody can really say, 'Oh, you need this level to be best in the world. No one knows. To be best at the 100 meters, you need some special muscles for that. You can't just start to practice."
Romaes has established that Mayer-style training has an effect, but how much and for how long? How much training is optimal? Are the results worth the time it takes to train? The study was conducted with amateur players, do the results hold true for professionals, who already think fast? These are all questions for which we don't yet have the answer.
One thing Romaes and Vestberg agree on: commercial video games—as opposed to laboratory exercises—probably don't help. There's too much noise in a typical game of FIFA, too much going on to improve anyone's processing speed. "The video game has to be very simple and train something specific," Romaes says. "Sometimes it's a decision task—like go, no-go, for example, which is very popular—or multiple-object tracking. Those are small components that are included in video games. This is where we have to start first."
Mayer is a little more optimistic. He acknowledges the noise, noting that in a game like Call of Duty or FIFA, there's no way to parse the different cognitive skills and track their improvement. Still, he thinks the games could make a difference, and at the very least do no harm.
When I ask Alexander Beck, the U19 academy player, what he thinks, his answer is emphatic. Football and FIFA have nothing to do with one another. But in the dorm room, as we play, I can't help but wonder: Were all those hours holding a control pad for nothing? Or was I just not born with it? After the game, feeling a bit shell-shocked, I set the controller on the TV table. He beat me 5-0. I didn't so much as get a single shot on goal.