Nov 4, 2016
Athletic Intelligence
Dennis Read

It’s usually pretty easy to identify the most physically talented athletes. They stand out on the playing field, in practice, and even during tryouts.

But spotting athletes who can excel in the mental and emotional sides of sports is tougher. Their talents are often hidden by the skills and drills work that make up practices and tryouts, only to be revealed in the throes of competition.

However, uncovering those athletes who have a high sports IQ is important. They are often your leaders — those who can make good decisions on the field and understand the importance of strength training.

Coaches in the Bethesda, Md., area recently shared their thoughts on what makes for a “smart” athlete in the Bethesda Beat. They came up with five overall traits:

1. Knowledge of the game

At the high school level, many players can get by on athletic talent alone. But the smarter players have a deep understanding of their sport that enables to get the most out of their talent, whether it be limited or abundant. While genetics plays a role, coaches look for players who are immersed in their sport and spend hours and hours watching it played at the highest level.

“If a student-athlete knows where to go, he’s substantially increased the chances of him making the right play,” Georgetown Prep Football Coach Dan Paro said. “I think [some kids] are born with that gene. But at the same time, I think they probably have watched hundreds of hours of football.”

2. Vision

Another ability common to smart athletes is the ability to see without looking. These players use peripheral vision to pick up a blitzing linebacker out of the corner of their eye while still maintaining focus on receivers downfield. Soccer coaches describe it as having your head on figurative swivel, so you can take in everything going on around you.

“We have a freshman, Jessie Gomez, who has a real high soccer IQ,” says Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School Girls’ Soccer Coach Rob Kurtz. “The game just slows down when the ball gets to her. She has great vision, perception of space, passing sense and reads the game [so well].”

3. Anticipation

Athletes with high sports IQ are always in the right place at the right time because they can anticipate what’s going to happen better than their teammates and opponents. Smart athletes recognize small, subtle movements and actions in a way that lets them react quicker than those with more active fast twitch muscles. They also use what they see throughout a game to pick up an opponent’s tendencies.

“Smartness can help you because you can anticipate,” said Whitman High School Football Coach Jim Kuhn said. “Defensive backs, for example, can anticipate the patterns [an offense] is going to run.”

4. The ability to maintain focus and composure

Some athletes excel in low-pressure situations only to disappear when a game is on the line. Smart players are able to use their high sports IQ to succeed when the stakes are the highest. Nia Cresham, Girls’ Tennis Coach at Thomas S. Wootton High School looks for athletes who are able to remain focused through the chaos of competition and can embrace the good times while figuring out what to do when things aren’t going well.

5. Picking up on cues

Look for players who are able to sense when their opponent is on the ropes. Based on body language, emotional outbursts, or uncharacteristic mistakes, they know when their foe is ready to crack and they capitalize on it.

Put it all together and you have the type of athletes that coaches value most, even if others draw the headlines.

“There’s no question, you get players who make all the highlights, someone who beats three players and scores goals on diving headers, but that player is not usually set up until the brain of the team has funneled the play to that person,” Walt Whitman High School Girls’ Soccer Coach Greg Herbert said. “Intelligent players are key to success.”

Dennis Read is an Assistant Editor at High School Athlete Performance.

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