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Caffeine can reduce athletes’ decision-making abilities

A recent study led by Staffordshire University in the United Kingdom, in collaboration with Shiraz University in Iran, has revealed intriguing insights into the effects of caffeine on athletes, particularly football (soccer) players. 

The research, published in the journal Behavioural Brain Research, suggests that while caffeine can enhance certain physical aspects of performance, it may also impair more complex cognitive functions like decision-making and problem-solving.

Dr. Pooya Soltani, a senior lecturer in games technology at Staffordshire University, explains the basis of the study.

“Caffeine is one of the most popular dietary supplements which has been shown to provide benefits during exercise, including football,” Soltani said.

“Studies have shown that caffeine can enhance attention, accuracy, and speed, as well as self-reported measures of energy and mood.” 

However, notes Dr. Soltani, “the effects of caffeine on ‘higher’ cognitive functions such as problem-solving and decision-making are often debated, so we decided to investigate this.”

The study involved 12 young football players aged 16-17 who underwent a series of tasks to assess the impact of caffeine on decision-making and passing accuracy. 

The tasks included performing short and long passes, as well as completing the Loughborough Soccer Passing Test, which measures skills like passing, dribbling, control, and decision-making. Additionally, a computer task was used to assess decision-making in various gameplay scenarios.

New insights on athletes and caffeine

Each participant completed these tasks twice: once after consuming three mg/kg body mass of caffeine and once after a placebo.

The findings indicated a notable improvement in passing accuracy with caffeine intake — 1.67 percent better in short passes and 13.48 percent in long passes compared to the placebo. 

However, Negar Jafari from Shiraz University highlights a concern. “While the short pass accuracy remained consistent among almost all participants before and after caffeine consumption, the performance varied in the case of long passes. Moreover, most of the participants scored lower on decision-making and the Loughborough Soccer Passing Test after consuming caffeine.”

Study implications 

While the researchers emphasize that they are not advocating for athletes to completely avoid caffeine, they acknowledge the need for further research on caffeine’s impact on in-game decision-making. 

“Our findings show that this can be affected by caffeine intake and coaches may find these performance metrics useful to explore in training,” Soltani said. 

He also points out that various factors, such as the dosage of caffeine relative to body weight, frequency of intake, and the players’ positions or playing styles, can influence the outcomes.

For instance, a slight decrease in pass accuracy might have different implications for a midfielder compared to a goalkeeper.

This study sheds light on the complex effects of caffeine on athletes, balancing its physical benefits against potential cognitive drawbacks, and underscores the importance of tailored approaches in sports training and nutrition.


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