Hillcrest Scholar does research at the U.S. Soccer Development Academy


By Caroline Whitlow
Creative Services Student Writer

Matt Best

Junior psychology major Matthew Best joined the largest U.S.-based psychology research team ever assembled to study the mental traits and personality characteristics of the nation’s most elite soccer players.  The study aims to discover what qualities translate to high success rates on the field.

In order to cover the costs of the project, Best applied for and received the prestigious Hillcrest Scholarship.  This scholarship, offered through the Honors College, provides $5,000 for student researchers.  The application process is extremely competitive, but for students like Best, the funding can make all the difference in research coming together.

Best used the funding he received to attend the U.S. Soccer Development Academy national showcase in Indianapolis as well as commute between Harrisonburg and Charlottesville, where he utilized the Motivate Lab at the University of Virginia.

Best became interested in sport psychology while watching the 2012 Champions League final soccer match between Chelsea and Bayern Munich. When a goal by Chelsea tied the score in the last few seconds of the game, he wanted to know what makes that sort of quick thinking and endurance possible.

Professor Kenneth Barron, who was already collaborating with the U.S. Soccer Development Academy, accepted Best as a research assistant. The Academy already had programs underway to analyze and improve their players’ tactical, technical, and physical fitness.  Barron’s research team introduced a new factor to the equation: psychological fitness.

Partnering with the Academy connected Best and Barron to some of the best up-and-coming soccer players in the nation.

“It’s [U.S. Soccer Development Academy] the highest level of youth soccer in the United States by great leaps and bounds,” said Best.  “Without player development in those crucial years, you can’t build the world class talent that you see in professional players, World Cups, Champions Leagues and even all the big European leagues.”

Best and Barron attended the Academy’s national summer showcase in Indianapolis, where they collaborated with soccer players and coaches from around the country.  Focus groups and player surveys were used to gather initial data for the largest soccer psychology survey in U.S. history. “We really wanted to appreciate their context and their environment.  If you want to change a system, you have to see it first,” said Barron.  “That’s where the focus groups really came in.”

One of Best’s main responsibilities is overseeing the survey, which questions thousands of soccer players nationwide.  It will determine correlation between various cognitive traits and athletic success.

“With our survey data compared to our performance data, we will be able to see which player mindsets and characteristics are correlated to top performance,” said Best. “We are very excited about seeing what it’s going to bring.”

Best also spearheaded a second survey for coaches.  The coaching profession has scarcely been analyzed from a psychological perspective in the US. “There seems to be a certain set of characteristics that come up when you read about coaching best practices,” said Best.  “But it’s tough to say for certain because we haven’t been able to measure it ourselves in the U.S. sporting context.”

Ultimately, Best and Barron hope that the continued research will give U.S. athletes tools to improve their game and a better sense of what makes a champion soccer player.

As an undergraduate, Best is grateful for the opportunity to grow as a researcher so early in his academic career. “It gives me a sense of humility to be 19 years old and already working with people at the top level of my field,” said Best. “I’ve had a lot of support, help and guidance along the way that have really gotten me to where I am.”

Best plans to continue with U.S. Soccer Development Academy research at least until the end of its five-year contract.  His work in this field will form the basis for his psychology and Honors College senior capstone projects.

“This gives me hope for the future. I can see myself doing this for the rest of my life,” said Best.  “Just the magnitude of the opportunity is awesome.”  The junior is still considering graduate school options, but is particularly interested in a soccer talent identification and development program at the Escuela Universitaria Real Madrid in Madrid, Spain.

Students interested in applying for a Hillcrest Scholarship to pursue their own research can find more information on JMU’s honors scholarship webpage.  Applications are due on March 24.  

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Published: Thursday, October 19, 2017

Last Updated: Monday, May 23, 2022

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