An athlete's knack for completing a pass or scoring a goal may depend as much on sharp mental skills as superior physical abilities, a new study shows.

Researchers in Sweden gave a battery of psychological tests to 57 male and female soccer players. Researchers found top athletes scored higher than 95% of the population on certain measures of brain function.

The tests were designed to measure a set of coordinated mental processes that scientists refer to as executive function.

Executive functions involve creativity, attention, time management, working memory, and self-control. In general, executive functions help people to reach personal goals. Executive functions are also the basis of something coaches call game intelligence.

"Game intelligence is about being able to read a play and acting quickly on that," says researcher Predrag Petrovic, MD, PhD, a professor in the department of clinical neuroscience at Karolinska Institute in Stockholm.

As a group, the soccer players had better executive function scores than members of the general population. And the elite players had significantly better scores than the Division I players.

"So it seems that the better player you are, the higher you score, basically," Petrovic says.

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