February 4, 2021In Uncategorized11 Minutes



The term executive functions includes a series of cognitive processes that allow adaptation to the context, depending on the implementation of behaviors directed towards a goal. They come into play when the implicit, automatic and instinctive response processes require the integration of information on an attentional and intentional level. From the research of various authors it has emerged that executive functions can be grouped into three basic nuclei – attention, working memory, cognitive flexibility -, from which higher order processes subsequently emerge, linked to decision making, reasoning, to problem solving and executive feedback.

The executive functions, therefore, come into play every time the individual carries out finalized actions: in fact they allow the recognition and maintenance in memory of useful stimuli, the construction of an action plan with respect to them, the behavioral choice to deal with it and finally control the results (feedback), in order, if necessary, to make changes to subsequent decisions.

Research shows that the frontal lobes in the human brain are involved in all processes of regulating behavior and adapting to complex situations, which require the use of higher cognitive activities. In particular, the dorsal-lateral prefrontal area appears to be implicated in the mediation of the so-called “cold” functions, which involve slow and thoughtful processing of problems, while the ventro-medial prefrontal cortex is linked to the “warm” functions, which allow more immediate and automatic processing of emotional stimuli and situations that elicit stress.

Regarding the development of executive functions, we can say that there are two moments in life in which the individual is particularly sensitive to their acquisition: the pre-school period and the transition to adolescence. There are also sensitive periods of development specific to each function. In general, basic EFs develop earlier, while higher order EFs evolve later.





Recent studies have focused on an increasingly broad field of research regarding the positive correlation between physical activity and the development of executive functions. Observing the results, it is clear, as Best (2010) underlines, that aerobic activity can have different effects in the various age groups of children and adolescents, depending on the development times of the specific functions. For example, there will be a greater predisposition for tasks that require cognitive flexibility during late childhood compared to early childhood, where activities that require attention are more effective.

In his review Best (2010), indicates three factors that influence the ways in which physical activity has a positive impact on executive functions:

  1. The cognitive demands that are part of the structure of the exercise: team activities, games that involve processes of cooperation and conflict, randomized activities and the alternating execution of different motor programs are effective for the development of FE;
  2. the cognitive processes involved in the execution of a complex movement and the coordination aspects;
  3. the structural and functional changes that physical activity causes in the brain: according to some studies, in fact, it stimulates synaptic plasticity in brain regions implicated in memory and learning, as well as in the frontal regions, implicated in EF.< /li>

On a general level, there are two conditions that make some sports more favorable than others for the implementation of executive functions: research shows that open skill sports (which involve complex, unpredictable and constantly changing situations), and in in particular those of a strategic type (which require the planning of effective behaviors in contexts that involve movements in relation to teammates and opponents) are correlated with greater abilities in cognitive flexibility, useful for adapting to the changing context through functional strategies, and in working memory , which allows you to recruit and use information more effectively.





Football represents one of the sports of choice for the development of the cognitive system, thanks to its intrinsic rules and characteristics. In fact, the footballer is required to adapt to highly complex situations, making decisionsrapid and flexible in an intense and changing context, through the selection of salient stimuli and the reading of interacting variables, such as for example the number of teammates and opponents involved, the position on the pitch, the occupied and free playing spaces, the movements collectives.

Empirical evidence links the development of executive functions with elite level footballers. In fact, a recent study by Verburgh and colleagues (2016) shows that young elite footballers between the ages of 8 and 12 present better performances in tasks that require attentional inhibition, working memory and attention compared to amateurs of the same age. The results of a previous analysis also highlighted how high-level footballers in adolescence (between 13 and 17 years) outperform their non-elite peers also with respect to cognitive flexibility and problem solving skills. The literature also highlights how youth football at high levels is predictive of a greater capacity for implicit (unintentional and autonomous) motor learning between the ages of 10 and 12 (Verburgh, 2016).

Another area that has been taken into consideration by recent studies is the definition of talent, understood as the analysis of the so-called football intelligence, identified by the authors as the ability to use executive functions. An interesting experiment by Vestberg and colleagues (2012) tried to demonstrate how a footballer’s predisposition to success is strongly linked to his cognitive development. The study showed how positive results in executive function tests administered to individuals correlated with the number of goals and assists scored two years after the experiment. A subsequent analysis by Vestberg (2017) also highlighted how cognitive functions predict football success not only in adults, but also in adolescents between 12 and 19 years old. Specifically, basic executive functions appeared to be more predictive in adolescents, as they have a high level of development at that age compared to higher order functions, which increase in significance with increasing age.

Finally, a study compared children between 8 and 16 years of age from professional youth sectors and children belonging to amateur teams, finding better results in motor inhibition and attentional alertness in the former, both fundamental skills in the game of soccer. In fact, they used temporal information more profitably to reach and maintain a state of alert and also proved superior in suppressing motor responses that were previously planned but no longer useful.

Knowing the executive functions, their development and the didactic aspects linked to their possible strengthening therefore becomes a fundamental skill for youth sector coaches, who act on the young footballer in an age group strongly predisposed to increasing these skills cognitive, closely linked to the concept of game intelligence, understood as the ability to cope with the complex demands of this sport quickly and effectively.





Best, J. R., & Miller, P. H. (2010), A developmental perspective on executive function in Child Development, 81(6), 1641-1660.

Best J. R. (2010), Effects of physical activity on children’s executive function: Contributions of experimental research on aerobic exercise in Developmental Review, 30(4), 331-351.

Diamond A. (2015), Effects of physical exercise on executive functions: going beyond simply moving to moving with thought, in Annals of sports medicine and research, 2(1), 1011.< /p>

Diamond, A. (2012), Activities and programs that improve children’s executive functions. Current directions in psychological science, 21(5), 335-341.

Diamond A. (2013), Executive functions in Annual Review of Psychology, 64:135.

Verburgh L., Scherder E.J.A., van Lange P.A., Oosterlaan J. (2014) Executive Functioning in Highly Talented Soccer Players. PLoS ONE 9(3): e91254. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0091254.

Verburgh L., Scherder E. J. A., van Lange P. A. M. & Oosterlaan J. (2016) The key to success in elite athletes? Explicit and implicit motor learning in youth elite and non-elite soccer players, Journal of Sports Sciences, 34:18, 1782-1790, DOI: 10.1080/02640414.2015.1137344.

Verburgh L., Scherder E.J.A., Van Lange P.A.M., Oosterlaan J. (2016) Do Elite and Amateur Soccer Players Outperform Non-Athletes on Neurocognitive Functioning? A Study Among 8-12 Year Old Children. PLoS ONE 11(12): e0165741. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0165741.

Vestberg T., Gustafson R., Maurex L., Ingvar M., Petrovic P. (2012,)

February 4, 2021In Uncategorized11 Minutes