Executive functions in elite athletes – Comparing open-skill and closed-skill sports and considering the role of athletes’ past involvement in both sport categories


Philipp Koch, Björn Krenn


Previous research documented differences in executive functions between elite athletes in different sports. It was argued that athletes in sport disciplines with higher cognitive demands (i.e., open-skill) show better executive functions than athletes in less cognitively challenging sport disciplines (i.e., closed-skill). In the current study, we aimed at detecting differences in executive functions between elite athletes in open-skill versus closed-skill sports and questioned the role of their total involvement in these sports until the age of 18 on executive functions.

Seventy-five elite athletes (45 males and 30 females; Mage = 23.03 ± 4.41 years) from various sports were classified as open- or closed-skill athletes based on the sport they currently competed in. The athletes conducted a series of neuro-psychological tests measuring working memory, inhibition, and cognitive flexibility (Design Fluency test, Trail Making testFlanker task, and a 2-back task). Retrospective interviews assessed athletes’ sport involvement in open-skill and closed-skill sports until the age of 18.

MANCOVAs revealed that athletes in open-skill sports performed better on measures of working memory and cognitive flexibility. Generalized Linear Models displayed that elite athletes in closed-skill sports, with greater involvement in open-skill sports until the age of 18, performed better during working memory and cognitive flexibility tasks.

The results indicate that extensive time spent in open- and closed-skill sports can affect executive functions in elite athletes. A high involvement in open-skill sports proved to be beneficial for executive functions, in particular for elite athletes in closed-skill sports. These findings suggest that experiences in cognitively demanding sports may cause benefits for the development of executive functions.