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Cognitive Ability and Sports Performance

Oct 29, 2020 | Articles

Introduction to Cognitive Ability and Sports Performance

The brain is a part of the body that is involved in every activity we do. It is extremely important to ensure that we are properly exercising the brain in order to optimize our memory, focus and daily function. Without the optimal function of the brain, daily activities can be negatively impaired. This can range anywhere from forgetfulness and inattentiveness to poor decision making. With that being said, improving our cognitive abilities is essential for performing well in tasks such as decision making, motor skills and sports performance.

Cognition is the ability for an individual to understand their surroundings and act appropriately based on the environment.1 Cognitive abilities are brain-based skills that everyone uses to carry out tasks that are both simple and complex.1 Specifically, in relation to sports, cognitive skills refer to the ability to identify and acquire environmental information and integrate this with current knowledge.1 For athletes, this refers to the ability to process live information when playing a sport and then respond to this information quickly.

Although at times, cognitive abilities may be impaired due to varying factors in one’s life, it is important to exercise the brain to improve these functions. This can lead to an improvement in overall daily function, and improvement in overall sports performance for athletes. There are a variety of ways one can improve cognitive abilities. One could participate in brain stimulation exercises or one might partake in meditation. Some people have also taken to CBD for help in stimulating cognitive abilities. Although there is not enough conclusive evidence that CBD can directly improve sports performance, a number of studies have shown that CBD use can improve cognitive abilities. Therefore, by improving cognitive capabilities and functionality, it is likely that individuals can indirectly improve their sports performance as well.

What is CBD?

Cannabidiol (CBD) is a naturally occurring compound (or cannabinoid) found in Cannabis sativa.2 It is the second most predominant active ingredient after delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC).2 But while THC is psychoactive and causes euphoric sensations, CBD does not produce these euphoric effects. This is the compound that is used for therapeutic potential.2,3 CBD works by mimicking the effects of compounds made naturally within our bodies called endocannabinoids, which play a key role in the functionality of our endocannabinoid system (ECS).2,3 The ECS is in charge of regulating mood, hormone level, energy level, sleep/wake cycles, and stress.2,3 Multiple studies have been done to evaluate the therapeutic potential of CBD. Some studies have also been conducted to evaluate the potential benefits for cognitive abilities from the use of CBD.

Cognitive Ability and Sports Performance

Sports performance requires cognitive functions such as attention, decision making, and working memory.4 Outstanding athletes have been shown to be more capable than lesser quality athletes of making decisions and at extrapolating relevant information from the environment to anticipate future outcomes.4 It follows that improvements in the brain functionality of athletes may enhance performance and predict success in competitions. Strong cognitive function is essential in sports that require constant attention, management of multiple variables, and adaptation to changing situations.5 In addition, it is beneficial in sports with less variability but that require higher levels of concentration.5

In particular, executive function is an important requirement for athletes of all ages. This refers to the higher order of cognitive functioning that is especially relevant for talent identification in sports. It involves inhibition of behavior, attention, and working memory. A 2014 study assessed the executive functions in highly talented soccer players.6 The study was done with 84 highly talented youth soccer players and 42 amateur (recreational type) soccer players of the same average age (roughly 12 years old). The participants were told to perform a Stop Signal task (motor inhibition), an Attention Network Test (alerting, orienting, and executive attention), and a visuospatial working memory task.6 All of these measuring variables were used to determine the executive functions of these athletes. Results determined that when compared to the amateur soccer players, the highly talented soccer players showed superior motor inhibition, indicating an enhanced ability to attain and maintain an alert state.6

Another study completed in 2015  evaluated how cognitive functioning affected the athletic performance of runners.7 The study was conducted on 30 ultra-marathon runners. The participants were instructed to complete a series of cognitive tasks right before the running race. An analysis was done to assess the cognitive performance on these tasks, comparing the runners who obtained a better rank in the race (faster runners) with the ones who obtained a worse rank (slower runners).7 Compared to slower runners, faster runners performed better in trials that required motor inhibition (the process of aborting an ongoing or planned action following a stop signal). In addition, faster runners took less time to remember to execute predefined actions associated with emotional stimuli. This study concluded that better cognitive functioning resulted in a better performance in running.7

These studies together have determined that it is essential that individuals, specifically those who participate in sports, must have healthy cognitive skills and abilities. These skills will directly influence the ability for individuals to perform well in sports.

Data on Cognitive Ability and CBD Use

To date, data regarding the benefits of CBD use in relation to improved cognitive abilities is limited. However, there are some studies that have shown promising results. In a 2018 study, researchers looked at individuals who use cannabis chronically.8 The researchers were interested in determining whether or not there was a correlation between CBD use and neuroprotective effects in the brain.8 The study concluded that CBD promoted neurogenesis, which is an increase in birth and regeneration of neuronal cells in the brain.8 This is suggestive of the idea that CBD use can improve cognitive ability as neurogenesis will increase the number of neurons that are formed in the brain.

Another study conducted in 2018 involved a randomized controlled trial to evaluate the use of CBD as an additional therapy in patients with schizophrenia.9 The study involved 88 patients with schizophrenia who were on antipsychotic medications. The participants were given either CBD 1000 mg daily for 6 weeks or placebo daily for 6 weeks.9 Assessment was done at the start and at the end of the treatment period using the Positive and Negative Syndrome Scale (PANSS), the Brief Assessment of Cognition in Schizophrenia (BACS), the Global Assessment of Functioning scale (GAF), and the improvement and severity scales of the Clinical Global Impressions Scale (CGI-I and CGI-S).9 The results of these measuring variables determined that in comparison to the placebo group, the CBD group had lower positive psychotic symptoms.9 Additionally, patients who received CBD also showed improvement in cognitive performance and in overall functioning.9

Can Improvement in Cognitive Ability Lead to Improved Sports Performance?

Cognitive function is one of the most essential tools athletes rely on to ensure they perform optimally throughout sports and intensive training. It is important to keep the brain well exercised in order to continually maintain high reaction speeds and quick analytical thinking. If an individual has poor cognitive function, sports performance can be negatively impacted. When athletes cannot focus properly, sports-specific motor skills can be impaired and result in losses and inadequate training.

Although there is no data that directly correlates CBD use with improved sports performance, some studies have shown that CBD can potentially improve a range of cognitive abilities. Therefore, it is possible that with the use of CBD, individuals can improve their cognitive abilities and thereby, indirectly improve their sports performance. More data is required to determine the direct correlation between CBD use and improvements in cognitive functionality. But, as pointed out above, studies are showing that there is great potential for using CBD to improve cognitive ability.


  1. Scharfen HE, Memmert D. The Relationship Between Cognitive Functions and Sport-Specific Motor Skills in Elite Youth Soccer Players. Front Psychol. 2019 Apr 25;10:817. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2019.00817. PMID: 31105611; PMCID: PMC6494938.
  2. “Cannabidiol (CBD).” Medline Plus. https://medlineplus.gov/druginfo/natural/1439.html. Updated Aug. 31, 2020. Accessed Oct. 22, 2020.
  3. “Cannabidiol (CBD) – what we know and what we don’t.” Harvard Medical School. https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/cannabidiol-cbd-what-we-know-and-what-we-dont-2018082414476. Updated April 15, 2020. Accessed Oct. 22, 2020.
  4. Walton CC, Keegan RJ, Martin M and Hallock H (2018) The Potential Role for Cognitive Training in Sport: More Research Needed. Front. Psychol. 9:1121. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2018.01121
  5. Hernández-Mendo, Antonio et al. “Physical Activity, Sports Practice, and Cognitive Functioning: The Current Research Status.” Frontiers in psychology vol. 10 2658. 6 Dec. 2019, doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2019.02658
  6. Verburgh, Lot et al. “Executive functioning in highly talented soccer players.” PloS one vol. 9,3 e91254. 14 Mar. 2014, doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0091254
  7. Cona, Giorgia et al. “It’s a Matter of Mind! Cognitive Functioning Predicts the Athletic Performance in Ultra-Marathon Runners.” PloS one vol. 10,7 e0132943. 14 Jul. 2015, doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0132943
  8. Beale C, Broyd SJ, Chye Y, et al. Prolonged Cannabidiol Treatment Effects on Hippocampal Subfield Volumes in Current Cannabis Users. Cannabis Cannabinoid Res. 2018;3(1):94-107. Published 2018 Apr 1. doi:10.1089/can.2017.0047
  9. McGuire, Philip et al. “Cannabidiol (CBD) as an Adjunctive Therapy in Schizophrenia: A Multicenter Randomized Controlled Trial.” The American journal of psychiatry vol. 175,3 (2018): 225-231. doi:10.1176/appi.ajp.2017.17030325



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