Increasing Attention & Learning Capacities in Youth Soccer Players

We are living in a different world now compared to when I grew up. If anyone had asked me what screen time was back in the early 1980’s, I wouldn’t of had a clue. Back then my friends and I spent the majority of our time playing sports, building forts, fishing or just exploring outside. The toys we played with didn’t light up, shoot lasers, show videos or have touch screens, and they certainly were not connected to the internet. Contrast that with today’s modern lifestyle, where the average person gets more than 11 hours of screen time per/day, and the longest a person concentrates on one task without distraction in an entire day is about 3.5 minutes. Now also consider that most people spend 93% of their time inside a building or vehicle, and you can see how society and life has changed dramatically. The problem with too much screen time is, it can disturb a person’s sleep patterns and decrease their attention span. When a person is exposed to long periods of screen time, it tends to act like a dopamine machine for the brain, which can be a very negative thing. Ever take away a kids smartphone or IPad and a huge temper tantrum follows? In my opinion that’s withdrawal from a real addiction. Often this withdrawal is diagnosed as ADD or ADHD, but in reality it is more of a dopamine withdrawal from technology, but get used to it because this is the instant gratification world we currently live in. In fact, researchers have recently concluded that the average attention span has dropped from 12 seconds to 8 seconds, but don’t worry, there is no need to throw your arms up in frustration or panic; all this information shouldn’t be seen as negative at all, the changes in society should be viewed as having many positives. Our kids today can shift focuses and attention at rapid speeds, as they multi-task like champions with creativity levels that are soaring, but as parents, teachers and coaches, we must realize that the skill sets of today’s children are different than 30 years ago, not better or worse, just different because of the world we live in. Ultimately what this means is, we may need to change the way we teach to fit the needs of modern society.

One of the challenges of coaching, especially at the youth soccer level is that many players are challenged with their ability to stay focuses or attention capacity. The reason I am focusing on player attention spans is that it directly affects the way coaches are able to effectively communicate and teach. If players struggle listening to simple instructions, lose focus quickly or display limited attention capacity, how can a coach be expected to teach anything? The reality is there will be vastly different starting points for each group and individual player, as it relates to their ability to focus, pay attention and process information. I would argue that many players and teams need to build up their basic cognitive skill sets first, laying a solid foundation for learning to take place. The ability to listen, process simple information and carry out a task as an individual or part of a group is the cornerstone of learning. Years ago the military recognized the importance of having a strong cognitive skill set, so in an attempt to improve the cognitive skills of its members, they came up with a term called “Cognitive Readiness”. Cognitive Readiness refers to a person who is in a conscious state, aware, focused and ready to learn. In the military it is critical that all personnel are attentive and aware at all times, not just to learn but to keep each other safe. Just like the military, soccer players must also be mentally and physically ready for all training and games. I know that some coaching courses will strongly encourage maximum touches on the ball, meaningful soccer specific warm-up, small-sided games and finishing with a larger game. All those soccer specific topics are important, but I would argue that teaching cognitive readiness, increasing attention capacity, growing mental bandwidth, strengthening focus, improving concentration and instilling emotional control are also very important, without these things in place, learning will be severely disrupted. Below are a few interesting pieces of information directly relating cognitive skills and success in soccer.


  • In an article written by Torbjörn Vestberg, a prominent neuroscientist from Sweden, he concludes that elite soccer players ages 12-19 perform better on executive brain function tests compared to the norm, therefore predicting that success in soccer may correlate with higher executive brain function abilities.


  • Elite soccer players are proven to be some of the best problem solvers, both on and off the field.


  • High-level soccer players test in the top percentiles on written tests that have nothing to do with soccer compared to non-elite players and the general public.


  • A study in Europe recently showed top goal scorers were better problem solvers than most of their teammates.


  • An academic study showed players with higher attention spans and better memories score more goals and play for higher division teams.


  • Higher level players display more emotional control than lower level players.


It is clear to me that success in soccer is directly correlated with being a good learner. Coaches can help build a foundation for learning in players by using exercises that demand focus, attention, emotional control and teamwork. However, coaches are not miracle workers, there is no substitute for parenting, quality schooling and the role that culture plays in the development of the child.