Professional footballers have unusually high self-control

There are reasons for doubting the self-control of professional footballers. Most week’s – most days, in fact – there are tabloid stories about the latest indiscretions of Premier League players, at least in the UK. But perhaps this is an unfair test. What often goes unreported is their years of dedication to practice, dieting, fitness and more practice.

Tynke Toering and Geir Jordet surveyed 314 premier league players and 305 second league players (all male). The country where this took place is redacted from the journal text. But the authors are based in Norway and they describe both leagues as having 16 teams, which points to their home nation as the likely context for this research.

The researchers used the 13-item “Brief Self-Control Scale”, which includes agree/disagree statements like “I have a hard time breaking bad habits” and “I am able to work effectively on long-term goals.” The scale measures two key aspects of self-control: “restraint” (related to long-term learning and development) and “impulse control” (related to long-term goals, emotional control and a focus on what one can control).

Overall, the professional footballers reported higher average self-control than has been found when the general public complete this scale. Players who said they had more restraint also reported more time spent on practice, more sleep, less TV; those with more impulse control said they did more homework drills, and spent less time gaming and with friends.

The footballers were of course rating themselves, which may raise doubts, but the results become more convincing when you consider that scores on the survey correlated with performance. That is, players who made the national team tended to report higher impulse control scores. And a league team’s averaged restraint scores measured at the start of the season were associated with the team’s end-of-season ranking (more players with higher self-reported restraint went together with a higher league place for the team).

One issue with interpreting these results is that it’s possible the source of the players’ discipline was not their own self-control, but the training regimen of their club and the influence of their coaches. In turn, these same factors could be causally responsible for player and club success.

Past research has already shown the benefits of self-control – for example, at least one study with children found that self-control was a better predictor of later academic success than IQ. This new study’s limitations aside, it shows the benefits of self-control in a new, elite context. “It seems recommendable for youth academies to develop young (i.e. not yet professional) players’ self-control,” the researchers said. “This can be done through establishing good habits, such as eating and sleeping well, and coming early to practice.”


Toering, T., & Jordet, G. (2015). Self-Control in Professional Football Players Journal of Applied Sport Psychology DOI: 10.1080/10413200.2015.1010047

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.