“He has a great basketball IQ!” an announcer exclaims after a fine pass from a point guard. “She has great soccer IQ,” an Irish brogue proclaims after a player slides into position to meet a great pass and head it in. I could go on but you get the picture. Lots of commentators and coaches believe in something they refer to as “sport IQ.” Coaches value it highly when recruiting athletes, sometimes as much as pure talent or skill. I think it is worthwhile to reflect upon what they mean by a sports IQ.
Let’s start by what they do not mean. First, coaches and commentators are not denigrating athletes. Americans tend to think of IQ as genetically determined like inherited talent. A genetic approach does not do justice to the immense investment of work and attention required to develop a sports IQ. Second, both announcers and coaches use it unconsciously to offset the “dumb jock” stereotype. The term reminds people that top quality team athletes deploy the attributes we associate with high-level intelligence. I also think that this language rebuts people who argue that black athletes are not as intelligent as white athletes—the same argument that denied black quarterbacks a chance to play for a generation. Finally, this language separates operational judgment and perception from sheer talent. The theory of multiple intelligences of Howard Gardiner talks about kinesthetic intelligence that would refer to independent aptitudes linked to natural musculature, vision and coordination. A sports IQ presumes far more than having talent or ability; these alone do not guarantee active engaged expertise and judgment.
IQ is supposed to measure a wide-ranging capacity for an individual to recognize, engage and solve complex problems. As we learn more of how the brain works, it becomes clear that intelligence involves the integration of multiple parts of the brain to blend perception, cognition, memory and emotion into the ability to turn sensory data into information and solve complex problems. Intelligence synthesizes both the general ability to employ the brain’s multiple resources and the trained ability to recognize the challenge and apply specialized knowledge to them.
In this sense, it does not make sense to talk about sports IQ any more than a legal IQ or engineering IQ. Instead the term covers refined and trained mastery or domains of expertise, but what the heh!
Sports IQ does fine, and here is what I think it means and suggests about athletes.
- It means that athletes must know the game. Not just the rules, but also an athlete must cognitively master the intricacies of the game, its deeper logic and patterns. This takes study, practice, error, learning and more practice. The average time to “master” a field including athletics involves 7,000 hours of study and practice.
- This knowledge requires study and practice and to see the game in a particular way. All competitive team sports unfold in patterns of flow. Teams design defenses and offenses as prototypes that players master during practice. Opponents learn them and also practice against them. These configurations have their own internal logics and give aways. The high sports IQ athlete learns to comprehend and act on these. The higher skilled athlete studies tape and practice to see the patterns and know how to recognize the patterns and act.
- This means a high sports IQ requires cognitive preparation and knowledge as well as practice that refines perception, cognitive processing and muscle memory so that under the split second demands of sports, the athletes recognize the pattern. Pattern recognition is the foundation of most accomplished professional skills.
- This trained recognition permits an athlete on a team to perceive the unfolding patterns of play and make out opportunities presented by them. Because they understand in an intense and trained way what is happening, they see possibilities opening up before them. Good athletes then judge and act with incredible swiftness and precision. Often coaches will comment on how well an athlete sees the court to describe this operational aspect of sports IQ.
Think of a football receiver who sees a cornerback shift their balance to anticipate a run. The receiver bursts through to create a seam to get open. Think of the quarterback who sees this unfolding and ignores his receiver check offs to pass to the receiver who found the opening. Think of a volleyball setter who becomes aware of the defense’s middle blocker shading to a left block. She suddenly changes to a middle quick set while in the air. Then her own middle blocker has to anticipate her action and be there to hit the ball.
In both cases one player sees an opening or opportunity and the other recognizes that their co-player has created this moment. They act in synergy. Basketball and soccer players always look for mismatches and play off each other hoping to create one. The player with the ball must be able to see when one occurs and instantly get the ball by foot or hand to the player with the mismatch.
A high sports IQ is enhanced when a team plays together for a while. Like in all teamwork being comfortable with each other, knowing each others tics and knowledge base and getting a feel and anticipatory sense all matter. The efficiency of teams depends upon building trust, respect and recognition. To maximize the sports IQ of the best players requires team cohesion. This permits that football receiver to know how best to position himself for the highest quality pass that the quarterback is comfortable with or for the volleyball setter to know exactly the optimal height for their quick set for that particular middle blocker. A high sports IQ without an experienced and cohesive team is not enough.
The whole language of sports IQ really means expertise and judgment in that particular sport. Good athletes have devoted the time and attention to develop into experts at what they do. They know the game, understand its structure and have through study and practice internalized perceptual, muscular and emotional knowledge and judgment to be at the right place at the right time. It sounds like a cliché but defines the truth of being an expert.