How Neuroscience has the potential to develop coaches and players

Coaching qualifications in football need to educate coaches to understand the brain

Developing the next generation of professional footballers through a clubs academy programme is requiring a greater understanding of the teenage brain and how it functions within the environment. The field of neuroscience has unearthed findings that have driven significant improvements in performance across many leadership business domains, which have the potential to cross over into coach and player development

The brain of a child and adolescent functions differently than that of a ‘normal’ adult brain, specifically when we look at managing emotions and making decisions.

The brains primary role is to maximize reward and minimize danger.

Simply put our brains are directed to engage with an emotion that we enjoy yet, due to the biological development of the adolescent brain our emotional impulses will often override our ability to rationalise our emotions causing behaviours to be impulsive.  Research shows that the teenage brain’s cognitive and emotional systems do not develop at the same rate.  During this teenage period the brain constantly changes its physical identity through developmental restructuring. This will often affect how adolescents think, feel and behave.  Such change can have a significant effect on an adolescent’s ‘higher order’ functions such as decisions-making, focusing their attention, managing their emotions having an awareness of other people’s intentions as well as their own. These abilities are some of the last regions of the brain to develop and may not fully mature until well into your mid 20’s.

Understanding this explains why, in uncertain or risky situations, teenagers can act impulsively with emotive decision-making both on and off the pitch. This is because the teenage brain due to the chemical imbalance, new experiences and greater responsibility expected of them to name a few, compared with a child’s and adult’s brain has greater levels of interference it must learn to deal with. The question that all coaches want to know is “can we do anything to train these brain skills” – well the findings coming out of the neuroscience field is producing some very positive outcomes which potentially will improve the quality of our talent development programmes.

Although the field is still in its early days there are some basic statements about the brain that can aid how we train our players. For example evidence from the field of neuroscience research in human performance will state that

  • Current ways of trying to bring people to insight are likely ineffectiverelate this to how team talks, meetings are delivered, how our brains have evolved may now require coaches to facilitate such team talks differently, that is of course if the intent is for the learning to stick with the players and not the coach
  • Suppressing the expression of emotions actually increases the emotion which then inhibits thinking and does not decrease the emotion. Yet suppression is the strategy of choiceA young player who has this knowledge along with the coping tools to control this response is much greater equipped to enhance performance

Brain research is providing fresh insights into how we can develop concentration, I have lost count the amount of times I’ve heard someone say to the player – “concentrate harder”, what we should be saying is do we consciously know how to train concentration specific to playing football. In order to answer this we need to better understand;

  • Which part of the brain plays a major role in concentration
  • Can we activate this part of the brain in order to develop the skill of concentration
  • Why is this even more challenging in our younger players
  • How do we implement this into our training programmes

With this understanding we can train concentration as opposed to telling someone to concentrate without giving them the tools to do so.

Another interesting finding from neuroscience is the brain is a social organ – meaning even though people fall on a continuum, some being more social than others, the brain functions much more efficiently when it feels socially accepted as opposed to rejected. It is known that social exclusion or social threat will actually cause through the brain feelings of pain.

As neuroscience is weaving its way through the business world driving human performance with significant results talent development programmes within academy and professional football potentially could break a trend and engage as pioneers.

Tony Faulkner

Sporting Director

CoFounder of VSI