Better Than Smart

The Football IQ a player is born with is crucial in shaping the arc of their career—but so are other mental capacities that they can sharpen.

Allow me to tell the story of a friend of mine; a friend from child-hood and one of my closest mates to this day. We’ll refer to him as “John.” For the more than three decades that I have known John, his drive to succeed has never flagged. In grade school, he taught himself to read by poring over his father’s newspapers. In high school, he earned spots on multiple varsity teams with soccer being his favorite and most successful of them all. Then at the University of Evansville, where he played four years of Varsity soccer, he made the Dean’s List. Upon graduation from the University of Evansville, John plied his trade in the French Second Division for several years before finishing his professional career in the Italian Serie B.  While he never once played at the highest-level of his respective Federations’ leagues, he did enjoy a lengthy professional football career spanning more than a decade.

Upon his retirement from professional football, John went on to earn a Doctorate in History before launching a prosperous career as an entrepreneur. Today, at 40, he’s the chairman and Chief Executive Officer of one of the largest Internet content consortiums in the world.

Not such an unusual trajectory for a successful executive, perhaps. There are many former professional athletes who have become quite successful in the business world. However, there’s a twist to John’s story.

Throughout his life, John labored under a secret shame. He struggled to understand things that his peers grasped easily. His grade-school teachers wanted to hold him back. His father bluntly belittled him as “stupid.” Even after he’d been accepted into a private, four-year universityJohn once told me, “I was very worried that I would be found out, that I really was stupid.”

His College Board scores were so low, in fact, that after he’d made the Dean’s List, school psychologists asked to test him so they could figure out how he’d done it. However, they were stumped. “They had me do puzzles,” he told me on the phone the night after he had taken the first battery of these tests, “and they said that I couldn’t solve problems that most 7- or 8-year-olds could.” College Board officials wanted to study him, too. “They seemed to think,”as John always jokingly put it, “that I was some kind of freak.”

Reason to Worry?

 It’s easy to understand why someone in John’s position might worry. Intelligence is arguably the most important trait a person possesses. Those who do well on IQ tests are more likely to get a good education, bring home bigger paychecks and enjoy longer lives.

Ironically, part of IQ’s importance and a semblance of its ambiguity can be ascribed to self-fulfilling prophecy. You see, our society actively works to sort its members through IQ tests. Those College Boards that John did so poorly on? They’re basically IQ tests, just not named so. PSATs, ditto. LSATs, same. All of those other exams by which our populace is sorted into future have and have-nots; checkIQ tests.

Now, at the same time, it’s important to understand tosociopyschological constructs of IQ itself, especially if we’re going to begin to understand how it correlates with the mental requirements that are useful in helping us navigate the labyrinth of life as well as what connection, if any, IQ has to a football player’s development. In simple scientific circles, IQ underlies learning, reasoning and problem-solving in every intellectual domain and it is related to both brain size and cognitive processing speed.

In contrast, however, there is a growing body of research showing impressively solid empirical evidence other factors besides intelligence—factors that most people in general aren’t ever tested for—play nearly as crucial a role in determining who is going to be successful in the game of football. These characteristics are largely uncorrelated with intelligence. What’s more, unlike intelligence, they can be improved with effort.

A Cautionary Tale

 If we want to look at an example of the shortcomings of intelligence alone, then we only have to look no further than the late 18th and early 19th century scientist, Nikola Tesla. Considered one of the top geniuses of his time, Tesla is credited with pioneering the alternating-current electrical system that powers modern society. His name also lives on as the standard scientific unit of magnetism. Never-the-less, Tesla’s life was riddled with other tragedies of his own creation. He was superstitious, obsessive, compulsive and so displaced from reality that his ideas sometimes veered into the world of fantasy. At one-point, apparently, he actually believed that if he could make a tuning-fork sing at the same harmonic frequency of the Earth then he could shatter the entire planet. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that Tesla made a fortune with his brilliant ideas but lost it all from his ill-conceived ones. In 1943 he died without a cent to his name and all-alone at the age of 86.

As smart as Tesla was, he was drastically short on rationality, something psychologists define as the aptitude for recognizing and repairing flaws in one’s own logic. In the 1970’s; Kahnemanand Tversky pioneered research on the topic and identified many systematic reasoning errors that they concluded all human beings are prone to. For example, we humans have a tendency to give more credence to information of which confirms that of which we already believe, an error in our judgment called confirmation bias. Another example is how we insist on placing overvalue on information that’s right in front of us; the so-called availability heuristic. These types of pitfalls can sidetrack the unwary into faulty conclusions and prevent them from perceiving their own mistakes. This is where the mind of a footballer really becomes interesting.


To be skillful, a person must have well-chosen goals, well-calibrated beliefs and must act appropriately on those beliefs to achieve those goals,” explains Keith StanovichPh.D., a professor of applied psychology at the University of TorontoStanovich’s own research suggests that a person’s IQ is only weakly correlated to their ability to learn and transfer skill. “There is surprising room,” says Stanovich, “for people who aren’t very smart to do very skillful things.”


and in the game of footballlack of skill hurts. One study reported that professional footballers who scored better on a battery of rational-thinking tests were less likely to see their careers extended or to reach even higher levels of play. Another found that a similar group of test subjects who scored badly on general IQ tests displayed better decision-making skills, technical-acumen, tactical vision and were considered to be a generally less risky investment as players overall.

Let’s think of intelligence as a flashlight beam. It will light up whatever it’s pointed at, but sometimes it might just be pointed at the wrong thing. People might have the mental power to handle tremendously complicated problems and yet still fall for scams and hucksters. One study found that more than half of Mensa members believed in aliens and 44 percent of them ascribe to astrology.

The good news is that, unlike intelligence, skill is almost entirely learned, so with a little effort footballers can increase their allotment. “Don’t think like a scientist,” Stanovich advises. “Look at things from people’s point of view and consider as many possibilities as you can before making a decision.”


Of course, making a good decision and then actually implementing it with skill are very different things. In a game like football that is filled with temptations, it’s easy to choose one course of action and then find yourself doing something else. The key is self-control—another crucial mental attribute for skill success and in turn success in the game of football.

 In the late 1960s and early ’70s, a young Stanford University psychologist named Walter MischelPh.D., carried out a series of experiments that rocked the field of psychology. He and his team offered nursery-school students a tray of marshmallows, cookies and other treats. They then asked the children which kind they preferred, and told them that they could have one treat right now, or if they waited a few minutes, they could have two. The researcher then left the single treat in front of the child and left the room.

The average child lasted less than three minutes before giving in and eating the treat. However,Mischel found that a significant minority were able to resist. In fact, about 30 percent were able to hold out for a full 15 minutes. That’s remarkable—but the really astonishing thing didn’t emerge until years later. Out of curiosity, Mischel went back from time to time to check in on his subjects. It turned out that the simple act of resisting the urge to gobble a treat indicated the presence of a truly powerful and deep-seated trait, one that had a major impact on the subsequent course of a person’s life history. When they reached high school, the children who had been able to hold out for a quarter-hour tested, on average, more than 200 points higher on the SAT than those who had only managed to wait for 30 seconds. Later still, in adulthood, the treat-abstainers were more likely to earn more, to enjoy better health and to avoid things such as obesity, imprisonment, divorce and addiction.

These were huge differences to trace to a simple 15-minute test taken in toddlerhood—and yet upon reflection, perhaps not so strange. The same ability that helps a 4-year-old to restrain herself from eating a marshmallow might down the road allow her to study instead of go to a party, say no to an offer of drugs or even get herself out of a bad relationship.

What’s the correlation to football? Simple; the development of skill required in the game of football takes such a high-level of intrinsic motivation that the commonly thought correlation between intelligence and this required motivation is faulty, as both Mischel and Stanovich have already shown.

Those footballers who are, unfortunately, natural-born marshmallow eaters can find “getting a grip” an impossibly daunting challenge. When that’s the case, experts advise to think in ‘baby steps.’ “A good first step is to create a kind of laser focus on one particular aspect of the skill-set that you can control or one specific action that you can do,” advises psychologistKelly McGonigalPh.D., author of The Willpower Instinct.

If your spending is out of control and you’re in debt, for instance, “You can start by opening your bills and highlighting how much you owe,” McGonigal says. That kind of small action isn’t going to solve your self-control problem in a single stroke, but it helps put you on the right path. “You see yourself on a new trajectory,” she explains. “It doesn’t matter how small the step is. You’ve toggled the switch from ‘you’re on the wrong trajectory’ to ‘you’re on the right trajectory.’ It’s going to make a big difference.

Just being on the right path and engaging in behavior that demonstrates self-control and commitment to one’s skill-set can help one develop this skill-set even more. It’s a virtuous circle. Numerous researchers have found that what shapes footballers skills are more about their own proclivities and not as much what they think about; or rather what they observe themselves doing. When successful footballers see themselves performing an action, they assume at a subconscious level that it must reflect their underlying preferences, regardless of their actual motivation. Experimenters have found, for instance, that subjects who are coerced into volunteering for a long, boring task subsequently rate it as more pleasant than subjects who are paid to do the same chore. Subconsciously, the volunteers assume that because they are doing the task without any discernible benefit or reward, it must be because they are enjoying it.

Once a player perceives themselves as someone who possesses a knack for playing a properly textured ball, for instance, they can apply it over and over in all sorts of situations. Researchers in Britain recruited footballers who said they wanted to learn a new skill to improve their game. The researchers asked them to execute this skill at least once a day and note in a journal how much effort the task seemed to require. Most of the subjects rated their new skill as being effortless after about 60 days, on average. What started out as an effortful project had become second nature.

Grit your teeth while you’re eating those marshmallows

The belief that one is capable of achieving one’s goals is called self-efficacy, and it, too, is a significant predictor of success in the game of football. One study found that a youth footballer’s sense of self-efficacy at age 10 is more predictive of his future playing level as an adult than his reading in score in school is. This factor is also a key component of grit, or mental toughness—the capacity to stay committed to one’s goals in the face of hardship. Grit combines self-control with a strong sense of internal motivation and the emotional resilience to shrug off disappointment.

 When a federal lawsuit led to the breakup of AT&T in 1981, many employees found themselves without jobs. Illinois Bell Telephone cut its 26,000-member workforce by almost half in the span of only a single year. Those who were fortunate enough to keep their jobs faced workplace chaos.

Salvatore R. MaddiPh.D., and colleagues from the University of Chicago were already studying more than 400 IBT supervisors, managers and executives for another, different study, when upon hearing of the companies major cuts to its labor-force; they decided to continue monitoring that same group annually until 1987.

For two-thirds of the affected workers, the layoffs were a painful jolt. They suffered heart attacks and strokes; their marriages fell apart and they suffered from mental health issues. For the other third, however, the transition wasn’t traumatic. In actuality, their lives improved. Their health remained sound, their marriages thrived and their careers continued to flourish. The study found that those who thrived remained involved in events rather than feeling isolated; tried to influence outcomes rather than becoming passive and viewed even negative changes as opportunities. This is the concrete foundation that holds the basis for “Grit.”


Grit has to do with the passionate pursuit of long-term goals and the toughness to be resilient in the face of adversity,” says West Point psychologist Michael MatthewsPh.D.What it comes down to is just not quitting. I used to be a sheriff’s deputy, and our small-arms combat instructor used to say, ‘It’s OK if we find your dead body lying in a ditch by your patrol car, but we want to find an empty magazine in your hand.’ Go down fighting, man.

 Matthews and his fellow researchers have found that grit correlates with everything from performance at the National Spelling Bee championship to the ability of West Point cadets to survive basic training.  The latter is where the game of football most closely relates, as pre-season training is the closest many athletes will ever get to the rigors of the military. Regardless, the two fall hand-in-hand in so many different areas that if it wasn’t the aspect of “putting one’s life on the line” with the military, an argument could be made that they are quite possibly one-in-the-same.

Not only can grit be taught, it’s the reason a thing exists called ‘boot camp.’ “Basic training, in any military in the world, is a grit-building exercise,” says Matthews. Obstacle courses bolster physical fitness but, more important, give new soldiers the confidence to tackle challenges unlike any they’d ever faced before. “I went through that,” he says, “and I remember being in basic training in the Air Force, and looking up at this God-awful obstacle that we had to go over, and it was tilted back and something like 30 feet high, and I thought, ‘Oh my God, nobody can climb that.’ So when you get up there and you’ve done it, you just want to go, ‘Woo-hoo.’ 

If you’re not ready to be inducted into the military, you can achieve the same ends by making a habit of challenging yourself to push your limits. Test your boundaries and develop new skills. “For players who are afraid of taking chances, even the simplest aspects of the game are a huge challenge,” he acknowledges. “But once they’ve proven to themselves that they can handle that, they’ll be able to progressively attempt more challenging aspects of their game.

 Perceived Shortcomings

Whatever his perceived intellectual shortcomings, “John” possessed grit by the tanker load. Where others might have seen rejection and dismissal, he resolved to work twice as hard. “I always felt that, one way or another, I’d overcome it,” he once told me. Instead of despairing over his academic failings, he identified areas of strength and concentrated his efforts there. He couldn’t get his head around Math and English no matter how hard he tried, but he seemed to have a natural aptitude for History. “I have a phenomenal memory,” he says, “and I’m good at seeing relationships. I really enjoyed reading about something that happened in 1882 and remembering something that happened in 1772, and seeing the similarities.” His gifts carried him all the way to a Doctorate.

Only many years later was John told that his problem all along had most likely been dyslexia. By then, he was already well established on a fruitful and rewarding career, comfortable enough in his life and his skin that it didn’t make much difference to him either way. Still, he feels for his younger self and the suffering he had to go through. “I think I would have understood and enjoyed life a lot more if I had known when I was 10 or 20 years old,” he says today. “I definitely had a bit of an inferiority complex.

Then again, the things that seemed almost insurmountable obstacles to John when he was a schoolboy helped forge the talents that he enjoys today. It’s not the yearned-for victories that turn out to make life long and happy, but the spirit in which we accept our inevitable share of victories and defeats.

That’s not a slogan from an inspirational poster, by the way, but one of the main findings of one of the United States’ longest-running psychology experiments. Since the 1930s, researchers atHarvard University and Massachusetts General Hospital have been gathering data on a group of former Harvard College undergraduates who are now in their late 80s or older. Approximately three-quarters of the original study group are now dead, but most of the rest continue to take part in the ongoing study, willingly answering biannual surveys about their health, well-being and outlook. Over the years, the group’s data set has offered a rare perspective on which factors of one’s life and more specifically how one’s mental aptitude, shapes their skill-sets.

One of the great ironies, it turns out, is that what one hopes for when they’re young is very different from what they value looking back from old age. Starting out as young players, we want to dazzle the football world with our brilliance. What turns out to be more important than impressing others, though, is forging a sense of consistency.

Robert J. WaldingerM.D., director of the Study of Adult Development at Massachusetts General, now heads this ongoing study. “One of the things our data has shown us is that experiences—good, bad,  positive, negative, etc—are really central to people’s skill development, to their work-life success and certainly to their physical health,” he says. “The knowledge gained from these experiences is far more influential on future skill attributes and thus-so respective success than any other cognitive function.

Brilliant, explosive, vibrant and top-of-the-headline careers, in contrast, turned out to seem much less important at life’s twilight. “and remember, these men were all Harvard undergrads, among the most success-oriented people out there,” Waldinger points out. “What we find is that there is a cognitive developmental pathway that most people take, where as they age they begin to care less and less about the signs of achievement and more and more about whether what they’re doing is consistent and fruitful.

In other words, your IQ might help you achieve success, but that success by itself won’t translate into the needed skill-set that will make you successful in the game of footballor in almost any other profession, for that matter. Indeed, other studies have confirmed that IQ has very little to do with life-long skill mastery or overall technical acumen.

You see, so many pundits focus so much on the “genius” side of the game of football that they miss the motivation, ambition and of course the rationality that drives the player to develop. I know of players of whom high IQs run in their family genes like they were wetting their pants; yet, I also happen to know of players whose IQs are so low that they couldn’t even be measured if time was to go in reverse. I consider both sets of players successful, whereas it’s the latter pool that I would dip into first when choosing a side. The funny thing is, when I was in my early twenties, I held IQs in such high regard, but now, almost 15 years later, I realize that having a high IQ is only useful if you actually do something with it; it’s one variable in the much longer equation of skill development and success. One of the more important things I’ve learned in my career as a player and a coach is that it doesn’t take a genius to be successful at this game, just a little ambition and the proper motivation.

The value and importance that society has increasingly placed on one’s IQ has been an eye opener for me.

Having personally known John, I know that he was a non-materialistic and spiritually oriented person. His personality was, however, very difficult to understand; not because of his craziness but rather because of the ignorance of the average-minded and jealous people (no matter which title they held: coach, player, teammate, fan, etc). He changed the world for the better and that’s a fact. His attitude, personality, theologies, ideologies, etc…, were ahead of his time – both intellectually and spiritually; not to mention as a footballer.

So, with all of that being said; that old saw turns out to be a scientifically demonstrated fact. “It really is true,” Waldinger says. “On their deathbed, nobody ever wishes that they’d spent more time in the office.