All in the mind – Is the brain the new frontier in football training?

brain

Today’s soccer professionals have a battery of physios, fitness trainers and doctors all striving to fine-tune their players’ physique for optimum performance.

But are football clubs missing a trick in overlooking dedicated training for the most important organ of all — the brain?

Scientists at London’s Brunel University believe the game’s top talents, such as Barcelona’s Lionel Messi and Real Madrid’s Cristiano Ronaldo, have mental faculties that are better programmed to anticipate their opponents’ moves.

Research published in the Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology found that of 39 players tested, the more experienced footballers were able to suppress the urge to act instinctively, making them less susceptible to feints or tricks from their opponents.

Brunel’s study reinforces the view held by one of the greatest players of all time — Johan Cruyff, who said that football is a game you play with your brain — and offers tantalizing prospects for clubs.

During the trial, players ranging from novices to semiprofessionals were placed in an MRI scanner and shown video clips of a player dribbling towards them. They then had to decide in which direction to move in order to tackle them.

The study found the better players were more sensitive to moves and tricks by an opponent than those at the less talented end of the scale, which came as no surprise to Bishop. “I am confident the findings would be even stronger with professional players,” he said.

“Much of the activation we saw was comparable to the activations we had witnessed in our previous studies of badminton players — which included a large number of international athletes.”

“I think that coaches either forget, or don’t even realize, that football is a hugely cognitive sport,” he said in an interview with football magazine The Blizzard.

“We’ve got to develop the players’ brains as well as their bodies but it’s much easier to see and measure the differences we make to a player’s physiology than we can with their cognitive attributes.”

He places huge value on “brain-centered learning” and devised a specific program designed to foster improvement in a young player’s cognitive skills. Bruyninckx places the same level of importance of neuroscience as he does football tactics.

Both Bruyninckx and McGreskin have embraced “overload” drills to help tune players’ brains, where some might be asked to speak in different languages during fitness training while others are asked to toss a tennis ball around and call out colors during sessions involving the football.

“We need to develop an engram — a neurological track — in the brain,” Bruyninckx told The Blizzard. “We always thought that sporting activities were mechanical activities, but we know that there are interventions from the brain.”

Bruyninckx’s work has been acknowledged by one of the world’s top soccer coaches, Jose Mourinho, the current manager at Real Madrid who has won titles in four different countries and lifted the European Champions League twice.

Read Chris Murphy’s article, “Mind over matter: Soccer’s bid to train the brain” here on the CNN website.

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