Decision-Making 0-7 Seconds Before Conscious Recognition: Soccer Application

Imagine you are at an ice cream shop, trying to decide what flavor you should order. You stand there contemplating, and after 6 or 7 seconds you blurt out, “I will take the chocolate chip please”.  You think it took six seconds to come to that decision, but in reality, unconsciously your brain decided many seconds before you were even aware. It might sound strange, but the latest research in neuroscience makes a convincing case for why this is true. The first neuroscience example is from an experiment done by scientists at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences.  The Scientists hooked patients up to an fMRI, as they asked them to press a button with either their left or right hand, the only condition was that the participant had to track when they made the actual decision to press the button, at the same time scientists monitored the micro patterns of activity in the fronto-polar cortex.  Remarkably, the Scientists were able to predict the hand that the participant would use to press the button, up to 7 seconds before the participant was even aware what hand they would use to press the button. This experiment alone challenges most conventional wisdom about the decision-making process. Another experiment came to a similar conclusion, but it involved participants performing a mental task, instead of a physical task.  Participants were instructed to either add or subtract a set of numbers, as data was collected using a fMRI. The results from this experiment re-enforced the previous experiment, showing that the decisions the participants made, whether to add or subtract, were detected on the fMRI up to 4 seconds prior to the participants even being consciously aware of the decision they made. This leads to the question, can this be translated to soccer and player development?

I am a coach that is obsessed with understanding player development from an information processing or cognitive standpoint, so experiments like these spark my interest, causing me to further research the process of decision-making and how it all relates to the game of soccer. Ultimately, it is my goal to help every coach make the connection between science and player development, in a meaningful simple way, but before I connect the dots from the previous research to actual realistic training methods, let’s look at a little more data on the topic that will further help fill in the gaps.

The first important concept that ties into how sporting actions are carried out and decisions are made, is called “Implicit Memory”. Implicit memory is something that your brain holds knowledge of, but cannot explicitly access. An example of this would be a golf swing, if you were to over-think your swing, putting the focus on internal performance cues, it would most likely mess the swing up. This is because the body is designed to carry out motor acts naturally, without the conscious mind interfering. Your subconscious mind holds all the directions your body needs to perform sports movements or actions. This was proven by Wulf, McNevin & Shea (2001), in their research pertaining to external and internal cues and body movements; they determined that internal focus or cueing “constrains the motor system by interfering with automatic motor control processes that would ‘normally’ regulate the movement.” Instead, if a person’s focus is shifted to the end result of the movement goal, the “motor system [can] naturally self-organize, unconstrained by the interference caused by conscious control attempts.”  An example of shifting to an end result of a movement goal would be, shooting at a specific area of the goal, instead of focusing on the technical cues of the shot, like keeping your ankle locked or making sure your plant foot was pointed at the target. By using the end result as the barometer of success, it lets the body perform in a natural state, free from constraints of the mind, success is measured by if the ball went into the goal through the desired target area. The idea of implicit memory goes as far back as the 1600s, when a researcher named René Descartes deducted that all of our experiences with the world are stored in memory, but not all of these memories are accessible by the conscious mind. This idea was again re-visited in the 1800s by the famous Psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus. Ebbinghaus believed that many of the experiences we live through are stored but not consciously remembered, however the experiences stay with us in our subconscious mind, and these experiences can be retrieved. A good example of this, is a study that was conducted with people who had anterograde amnesia, these are people that have no ability to consciously recall new experiences in their lives. The study involved teaching the group to play a video game called Tetris, when asked the next day about the game, they had no recollection of the experience, they couldn’t even identify seeing the game before. But when the participants were asked to play the video game, they showed vast improvement, just as much as non-amnesiacs. The study proved that even people with anterograde amnesia displayed implicit memory with newly learned skills, as they improved at the video game, even though the knowledge gained was not accessible to their conscious mind.

There are many examples of implicit memory and the power of the subconscious mind. One example is the chicken sexers (identifying the sex of infant chickens) of Japan. The mystery of the chicken sexers came about because nobody could explain how the job was accomplished. The deciphering of infant chickens was based on subtle visual cues, but even the best professional sexers could not explain what the cues were. They would just look at the chick’s and instinctively know to throw the males in one bin and the females in another bin, but the difference between the male and female chic’s couldn’t be explained by the sexters. What the master sexters found out was that the only successful way to teach the skill, was by simply saying yes or no when the chick was thrown into the bin by the apprentice. After weeks of yes and no feedback from the master sexter, the apprentice was able to learn the skill, as their brain was trained on an unconscious level. The same held true during WWII when expert British plane spotters tried to train others how to detect the enemy planes flying overhead.  The expert plane spotters could not explain how they did it, rather they just had to tell the apprentices yes or no, as the planes came in, letting the apprentice’s subconscious minds learn the skill.

All this scientific stuff sounds interesting, but how do we connect the information in a meaningful way, in terms of soccer player development? The answer is not so simple, but there are without a doubt some cornerstones to success.  First, there is no substitute for playing and playing often. Second, playing in a place that has a rich soccer culture helps immensely, for many different reasons. Also, playing the game in diverse settings against top players is another invaluable part of the developmental process. I am also a strong believer in constraint based training methods from a physical, environmental and task perspective. If you would like to know more about cognitive soccer coaching methods or the latest in neurology and how it relates to the game, I would suggest my taking my cognitive soccer instructors course at – My book 0-7 Seconds: The Keys to Developing the Soccer Brain is available on along with many of my other titles.