The Athletic Brain – How Neuroscience Is Revolutionising Sport

Football is a game of anticipation and high-speed decision making. The best players in the world stand out because they are able to read the game faster and make better decisions under pressure.

No one is born with this talent. Even players like Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo have trained their brains through thousands of hours of practice, sharpening their mental skills to the point where they can literally score goals with their eyes shut, as Ronaldo demonstrated in a fascinating experiment.

Pioneering coaches have opened their eyes to the brain’s untapped potential. They are implementing new training tools, technologies and techniques based on neuroscience and psychology that have the potential to change the game.

Mick Clegg’s epiphany arrived in the middle of the night. He had been working as a power development coach at Manchester United, helping the likes of Roy Keane, Ruud van Nistelrooy and Ronaldo improve their speed and strength with gym work and tailored training regimes. Over the years, his work morphed into something quite different.

Over a decade spent watching the first, reserve and youth teams at United, as well as his own sons (one of whom, Michael, played a handful of games for the club), Clegg started to realise the importance of brain power. “After a lot of thought and testing and enquiries, one night I woke up and there was just this thing resounding in my ears,” he says. “Rapid cognition. Rapid cognition. Rapid cognition.”

That thought took him away from the state-of-the-art facilities at United’s Carrington training base, to an industrial estate in Ashton-under-Lyne, and a long, low hut where you can hear the rain hammering down on the corrugated metal roof. Welcome to the brain gym.

Spot the balls

“Most players don’t look at being stronger, they look at being faster,” explains Clegg, reclining on a tattered armchair, and wrapped in a blanket against the November chill. “How do you develop power, with speed being the main ingredient? Of course it all comes from the brain.”

Alongside the usual weight racks and haphazard piles of blue crash mats, Clegg’s gym is full of tools designed to train the brain. There are metal frames with lights and switches to test reaction time and peripheral vision, and under a tarpaulin near the doorway, two huge $85,000 machines labelled ‘Nike SPARQ Sensory Performance’.

In the middle of the gym, a square space like a boxing ring has been cleared of clutter. There’s a flatscreen television mounted on one side, onto which Clegg loads a game called Neurotracker, which is being used by dozens of sports teams around the world, including several Premier League clubs. It is designed to train ‘multiple object tracking’ – useful for footballers, who need to keep track of the movement of their teammates, opponents, and the ball.

A young footballer called Pierre stands in front of the screen and slips on a pair 3D glasses to play. It involves keeping track of several yellow balls as they bounce around in three dimensions, overlapping and colliding. There are four target balls, and after 15 seconds, Pierre has to pick them out from amongst the melee – it’s like a much harder version of the bonus round on a pub quiz machine. As users get correct answers and progress, the game gets more difficult. The balls speed up and extra tasks can be added – there’s one where they have to duck and weave to avoid bars of light that come towards them while they’re playing.

Brain training tools like Neurotracker, and the dozens of others I explore in my book The Athletic Braincould help cut down the amount of time it takes for amateurs to become experts, or help the best in the world become even better. The idea behind them is to use science to hone in on what makes elite athletes different, and then find a way of training that skill more efficiently than you would be able to during normal practice.

The next revolution

At TSG Hoffenheim, inside a large modern building that clashes spectacularly with the rest of their training base in a converted castle, there’s a €2 million contraption that’s helping do just that. “Welcome to my baby,” grins the team’s sport psychologist Dr Jan Mayer, as he buzzes us into the Footbonaut.

It’s a square of astroturf surrounded on four sides by a metal frame, which is split into squares by a grid of LED lights. A player stands in the middle, and one of eight ball machines plays a sound like a car being unlocked, and then fires a pass at them. At the same time, one of the squares on the walls lights up, and the player has to control the ball and pass it through the target square as quickly as possible. They are scored on speed and accuracy. It is unbelievably fun.

Mario Gotze was a huge fan of the Footbonaut in his first spell at Dortmund and, as Rafael Honigstein points out in Das Reboot, his winning goal in the 2014 World Cup final used exactly the kind of skill the machine helps train – an assured chest trap and then a precise finish.

At Hoffenheim, they’re also using multiple object tracking training – on a bespoke 180 degree screen airily dubbed ‘the HELIX’ – as well as other tests that measure and train more general intelligence. Top footballers may not excel at a traditional IQ test, but they tend to do well on tests of ‘executive function,’ a group of mental abilities that includes things like mental flexibility and short-term memory. Mayer has found that as they train and play with Hoffenheim’s fast-paced philosophy, players’ scores on these tests of executive function actually improve. They get smarter both on the pitch and off it.

Football is getting faster. Mayer tells me that in 2006, when Germany finished third in the World Cup, their players spent an average of 2.9 seconds on the ball each time they had it. By 2014, when they won, that had fallen to just 0.9 seconds. Quick decision making is more important than ever and, despite some skepticism, the early evidence suggests brain training can help. One study split footballers into two groups – half did normal training, the other half trained on Neurotracker. The brain-training group showed a 15 per cent improvement in on-field decision making.

In a sport where fine margins can make all the difference, that’s potentially huge. At the top level, footballers are better prepared then ever in terms of nutrition and recovery, thanks the the efforts of pioneering managers like Arsene Wenger. Coaches like Clegg and teams like Hoffenheim are looking for the next edge, the next football revolution. They’re turning to the brain.

The Athletic Brain – How Neuroscience Is Revolutionising Sport And Can Help You Perform Better by Amit Katwala is out now (Simon & Schuster). You can buy a copy here.

The Athletic Brain – How Neuroscience Is Revolutionising Sport
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