Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

Sport and Competition

Cognitive Strategies of Elite Soccer Players and Athletes

Can time dilation explain soccer superstars Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo?

Key points

  • Perceptual time can appear to slow down in some instances and may have practical benefits.
  • Elite athletes deliberately train under more challenging conditions that they would normally endure.
  • Physical strength may compete with superior mental processing to determine who wins in sporting competitions.

Soccer is the planet’s most popular sport (outside of the USA), and the FIFA World Cup is therefore perhaps the largest mega-event in sports, possibly even surpassing the Olympics in worldwide fan interest.

Fanny Schertzer
Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi
Source: Fanny Schertzer

Arguably the two greatest soccer players of all time, Cristiano Ronaldo of Portugal and Lionel Messi of Argentina, are both playing in the current FIFA World Cup tournament in Qatar, representing perhaps the last opportunity to witness such a unique spectacle.

Theories as to why some elite athletes become practically unbeatable, invoke not just physical strength but also neuroscience and psychology.

How to Freeze Time

A research paper entitled, "Can Lionel Messi’s Brain Slow Down Time Passing?" suggests that elite competitors become outstanding at anticipating their opponent’s next move, before they make it.

The authors argue that the key reason why the Argentinian soccer star is difficult to stop is that he makes sure his adversaries don’t have enough time. This is because, so the argument goes, in Messi’s mind time passes more slowly.

These authors contend that if perceptual time for an elite athlete slows down, this enables them to see more of what is happening on the field of play. Paradoxically, if their sensory systems work faster, then more computations-per-second deliver a “wider bandwidth” for grasping events on the pitch.

The authors of a study entitled "Psychological and Neural Mechanisms of Subjective Time Dilation", show how for any set period of time, certain events can be experienced as longer than others.

For example, they suggest you try this for yourself: Take a quick glance at the second hand of a clock or watch. Immediately, the tick will pause momentarily, and appear to be longer than the subsequent ticks. Yet, they all last exactly one second.

Suppose for athletes like Lionel Messi, on the field of play, they see the equivalent of the second hand as always running slower than their opponents?

Another study entitled, "Mastery in Goal Scoring, T-Pattern Detection, and Polar Coordinate Analysis of Motor Skills Used by Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo," argues that it is the dynamic nature of superior skill that distinguishes the elite athlete; the player needs to perform the right action at the right time.

Goal-scoring sequences were analyzed from the moment the player receives the last pass to the moment he scores a goal, and the conclusion of this investigation was that both players, Messi and Ronaldo, better anticipate the actions of their opponents, resulting in higher success in attacking.

In a paper entitled, "The Discovery of Slowness: Time to Deconstruct Gretzky’s and Messi’s Predictive Brains," the Argentinian example, it is suggested, was preceded by the astounding case of ice-hockey star Wayne Gretzky.

Between 1979 and 1999, the Canadian ice hockey player broke numerous records. As he was not a particularly impressive physical specimen, when trying to explain how he differed from other players, it would appear that during a match, time could be said to "freeze" for him.

According to Gretzky, he considered ice hockey as a rather slow game. By weaving together his reading of immediate sporting predicaments, Gretzky often predicted what would happen next.

Being able to predict what is going to occur is not just useful for elite athletes, it is of everyday significance in our daily lives as well.

The authors of a study entitled, "Why am I Always Late? Modelling the Cognitive Mechanisms Underlying Anticipatory Timing Under Uncertainty," give an example: imagine trying to swat a fly? This requires being able to predict precisely where the insect will be and when, given the fly usually moves faster than you can. In life, you are not just spontaneously reacting to some event, but rather you are frequently engaging in anticipatory timing, calibrating your actions for a scenario you figure is coming.

A lot of life is a kind of choreography, where if you are not good at anticipating the move of your protagonist, you are going to collide.

In their experiment, subjects viewed the motion of a ball and then had to predict where it would be when it was occluded from view for a while.

The authors found there was a link between people’s ability to correctly anticipate the ball, and some other key aspects of their lives, linked to time judgments, including their tendency to be late, the ability to plan ahead, starting and completing tasks on time.

The results of this experiment suggested that generally becoming more aware of the passage of time, even as simple as glancing at a clock more often, could help improve anticipation, and this could have knock-on benefits to us in a wide variety of different areas of life, particularly if we have generally a problem with timing.

But what if you want to get as good as Lionel Messi with your visual reaction time? Can you make time slow down with training?

A study entitled "Sports Vision Training: A Review of the State-Of-The-Art in Digital Training Techniques" points out there is a long history of athletes purposefully practicing under tougher conditions than they would find in an actual match, in order to develop.

From the use of strobe lights in otherwise dark settings, to digitally controlled eyewear that can be used in natural practice situations, by intermittently disrupting vision, individuals are only allowed to see brief snapshots of their environment. They therefore train under tougher conditions, which include a disrupted visual experience.

The stroboscopic effect, the theory goes, produces better visual skills when athletes return to normal conditions.

The Takeaway

The recurring pattern in the lesson of how to become an elite athlete is to create tougher conditions than normal, and the body and brain grow and adapt in response to the challenge, becoming stronger and fitter.

Lionel Messi was diagnosed with a growth hormone deficiency as a child, and at five foot seven inches he remains one of the shortest players in the FIFA World Championship.

According to the website, if we take a continental average, the European dominance in average height across teams at the current FIFA world cup is massive. The average height of European squads in Qatar is 183 cm. This drops to 180.9 cm for South American teams.

The shortest squads in terms of average height will be from North America, with their average heights touching only 180.7.

But it appears that even in sport when physical reality like height can be very important, it is possible for psychological mechanisms to compensate.

Maybe time slows down for Lionel Messi because this is how he adapted over many years to compensate for his body being shorter, compared to all the other kids, who may now be taller.

Faster mental speed, for some, could be more than a match for slower physical growth.


Can Lionel Messi’s Brain Slow Down Time Passing? Sajad Jafari &Leslie Samuel Smith Published online: 24 Mar 2016 Chronobiology International The Journal of Biological and Medical Rhythm Research Volume 33, 2016 - Issue 4, Pages 462-463

Psychological and Neural Mechanisms of Subjective Time Dilation. Virginie van Wassenhove, Marc Wittmann, A. D. (Bud) Craig

And Martin P. Paulus Frontiers in Neuroscience April 2011 | Volume 5 | Article 56 | 1

Ball Impact Dynamics of Knuckling Shot in Soccer. Sungchan Honga, Yahiro Kazamab , Masao Nakayamab, Takeshi Asaib 9th Conference of the International Sports Engineering Association (ISEA) Procedia Engineering 34 ( 2012 ) 200 – 205

Mastery in Goal Scoring, T-Pattern Detection, and Polar Coordinate Analysis of Motor Skills Used by Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo. Marta Castañer, Daniel Barreira, Oleguer Camerino, M. Teresa Anguera, Tiago Fernandes and Raúl Hileno Front. Psychol., 12 May 2017 Sec. Quantitative Psychology and Measurement

The Discovery of Slowness: Time to Deconstruct Gretzky’s and Messi’s Predictive Brains. Thomas C. Erren,Liz Kuffer, Andreas Pinger &J. Valérie Groß Chronobiology International The Journal of Biological and Medical Rhythm Research Volume 33, 2016 - Issue 7 Pages 789-790 | Published online: 09 May 2016

Why am I Always Late? Modeling the Cognitive Mechanisms Underlying Anticipatory Timing Under Uncertainty. Peter D. Kvam, Guy Hawkins, Konstantina Sokratous PsyArXiv Preprint sokratous_etal_timing_preprint.pdf Version: 1 Created: December 14, 2021 | Last edited: August 22, 2022

Sports Vision Training: A Review of the State-Of-The-Art in Digital Training Techniques, L. Gregory Appelbaum & Graham Erickson (2018) International Review of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 11:1, 160-189, DOI: 10.1080/1750984X.2016.1266376… FIFA World Cup: Tallest, Shortest Players and Teams in Qatar 2022; Noppert starts vs Ecuador

More from Raj Persaud MD FRCPsych
More from Psychology Today