In football, the goalkeeper is a separate player, who almost plays a different sport. The only player authorized to use his hands, he must have very particular qualities: most often tall, but above all lively, courageous, with a good reading of trajectories and above all excellent reflexes. But are these players really so different from the others? According to a recent scientific study, goalkeepers have cognitive skills superior to those of other footballers and even those of ordinary mortals.
Irish researchers from Dublin City University looked into the question, led by behavioral neuroscientist Michael Quinn, a former professional goalkeeper. For this study, they worked with 60 “guinea pigs”: 20 professional goalkeepers, 20 professional outfield players as well, and finally 20 people who do not play football.
Michael Quinn explains his approach: “Unlike other football players, goalkeepers must make thousands of very rapid decisions based on limited or incomplete sensory information. (…) This led us to predict that “Goalkeepers would have an increased ability to combine information from different senses, and this hypothesis was confirmed by our results.”
Experiments were conducted to assess how quickly study participants could process and integrate information from their senses, technically known as the “temporal binding window.” In each trial, one or two flashes of light (visual stimuli) were presented, accompanied by one, two, or no beeps (auditory stimuli). During the test with one flash and two beeps, most participants believed they saw only two flashes, which highlights a faulty integration of visual and auditory stimuli.
Goalkeepers have a significantly narrower “sensory processing window” compared to outfield players and non-players, demonstrating more effective multisensory processing. In short, they perceive information in their environment more precisely and quickly and can therefore make faster decisions based on this data. This partly explains the exceptional reflexes that professional doormen must have.
Additionally, keepers were shown to be better able to separate sensory signals, including visual and auditory signals. Once again, this is a major advantage: goalkeepers sometimes have to react to a visual signal only, the sounds being covered by the noise of the public, or on the contrary to an audio signal only, when they do not see the ball, but hear the typing for example.
At the end of these tests, psychologist David McGovern of Dublin City University, wonders: “Could the narrower sensory processing window observed in goalkeepers be due to the rigorous training to which they are subjected from their younger age? Or do these differences in multisensory processing reflect an innate, natural ability that attracts young players to the goalkeeping position?” We are waiting for the next study to have some answer.