About a decade ago, when Eric Castien was writing a history of Real Madrid soccer stars, he asked scouts and coaches what defined the greats. “They all pointed to their head and said, ‘It’s in between the ears, something complex, maybe even magic,’ ” the Dutch journalist and entrepreneur recalls. Could they be more specific? Not really.
Castien went looking. In 2012 he met Ilja Sligte, an assistant professor at the University of Amsterdam and a rising star in cognitive neuroscience. Two years later the pair founded BrainsFirst BV (originally called SportsQ), an Amsterdam startup that promises to identify the world’s next soccer superstars. Although there’s no peer-reviewed data to support it, the company claims its neuroscience games can identify natural affinities for the sport that may not be immediately obvious. A scrawny, inexperienced player, for example, may have a working memory and spatial awareness on par with Lionel Messi’s. The goal, says Sligte: “Match cognitive supply and demand.”
The signature test on BrainsFirst’s NeurOlympics platform is a rather mundane, 45-minute series of simple drills on its website: remembering which boxes in a grid lit up blue, tapping the keyboard’s arrow keys as quickly as possible after a prompt, and so on. The idea is to test a player’s ability to concentrate, quickly make complex decisions, and shift attention when needed. BrainsFirst charges customers €10,000 to €70,000 (about $12,000 to $82,000) a year to license its software. The company has found an eager audience among European sports agents and soccer clubs. Unlike in the U.S., European agents often sign players at age 15 or 16, well before their full potential is known.
BrainsFirst hasn’t submitted its software to the Dutch Association of Psychologists, which audits the quality of tests for students as well as human resources departments and health-care services. Nor has Sligte published any articles about the company’s methods or applied for a patent. “There’s basically no evidence for the claims they’re making,” says Frederick Morgeson, a professor of management at Michigan State University who specializes in organizational psychology. “That’s not to say it’s completely bogus, it’s just to say that we don’t know.”
“These games are all based on well-validated cognitive tests,” says Sligte, adding that he can predict a person’s age by comparing their test data against results from 1,000 unsigned youth players and 200 international professionals. Bram Meurs, a Dutch sports psychologist and former pro soccer player, says BrainsFirst tests showed him a physically imposing 17-year-old client had cognitive abilities better suited to defense than his longtime midfield position, and the player is starting to thrive in his new role.
Sports agents are looking for ways to make sure they’re investing in the right players. “We lose a lot of money and time and energy if we represent the wrong talent,” says Kees Vos, chief executive officer of Amsterdam’s Sports Entertainment Group, one of the world’s most valuable soccer agencies. “We have put time into certain players we wouldn’t have three or four years ago” based on BrainsFirst’s test, Vos says.
The testing company also counts among its clients top Dutch soccer clubs PSV Eindhoven and AZ Alkmaar. Lacking the resources of Europe’s richest squads, these clubs tend to develop their own stars in youth academies rather than buying them from rivals. The academies may be cheaper, but they aren’t cheap; given a typical annual cost per player of €15,000 to €75,000, there’s a clear incentive to weed out dead-end players early. The clubs declined to comment.
BrainsFirst, which says it will take in €500,000 in revenue this year and turn a slight profit, is expanding beyond sports into the broader field of so-called people analytics. Its other clients include McKinsey & Co., which from October to February advertised a BrainsFirst game on its official Dutch Facebook page and invited high scorers to meet its recruiters. McKinsey declined to comment. In the U.S., startups are already pitching games they say can measure the risk tolerance and attention to detail of applicants for more conventional jobs. Morgeson, the Michigan State professor, says that because the average adult’s cognitive functions start to dip at around age 40, HR departments that embrace such systems should prepare for litigation. “I’m sure we will get sued in the future,” BrainsFirst’s Sligte says.
So far, sports are different. America’s National Football League has been using the Wonderlic Personnel Test to gauge cognitive reasoning since the 1970s, even though that test has led to hundreds of discrimination lawsuits involving workers in other industries. Today, the 12-minute set of 50 questions remains a predraft ritual for aspiring pros. And in the Netherlands, where BrainsFirst is expanding into volleyball, field hockey, and tennis, the sports world is suddenly full of brain-game faithful. “Does Messi have a different brain than you or me?” says Meurs, the sports psychologist. “I want to believe that.”