Scientists at the Center for Information in Neural Networks in Japan wanted to see if the sport-specific talents of one of the world's greatest soccer players would translate to brain images in a lab.
Athletes are phenomenal subjects to study. The athletic feats we observe and admire have very complicated inner workings.
Inherently, we all know there is a mind and body connection. What we call motion is mostly an orchestration of brain activity that relies heavily on sensory information. Dig a little deeper and it's clear that the amount and variation of information that the brain regulates for simultaneous motion and decision-making is profound. When this regulation is taken into a game setting the need for more brain power increases exponentially. Studies like the one I'm about to report are starting to tell the story of how each and every brain has the potential of being distinctly unique through the study of "neuro-plasticity".
The brain scientists that study Neuro-plasticity, the science of how the brain shapes based on one's learning and environment, are making major breakthroughs on how everyday activities are understood and taught.
The implications and studies range from musicians to amputees. Soccer teachers and students can also benefit from this branch of science.
Enter Neymar Jr. and a group of brain scientists.
Neymar de Silva Santos Junior is arguably one of the best soccer players in the world. He moves with skill and precision few in the world could top. "A genius with the ball at his feet, Neymar's pace, dribbling, expert finishing and impeccable technique make him a fearsome opponent. His impressive awareness and match intelligence also mean he can operate wide or through the middle." wrote ESPN last year.
So what makes Neymar a so called 'genius with the ball'? What sets him apart from other international players? Can it be explained that his talent is more than a genetic gift from Brazil? Is it a part of an athletic intelligence?
7 athletes were studied using Functional MRI machines
In addition to Neymar there were three other professional La Liga players
Brains were scanned while each athlete moved their ankles (think ankle circles).
The images from the scan showed a specific area of the brain that controls the fine movements of the foot.
The results showed that Neymar was more efficient in this brain area when he was asked to move his foot. He scored better than all the athletes including his peers.
The scientists correlate the brain scan outcome to his superior soccer skill set and the speed at which he can maneuver his body to perform the skills. Neymar is quoted in the publication. He said that his youth consisted of training with a variety of balls and done barefoot. The researchers connect this to the findings.
Since Neymar’s brain has been shown to be more efficient while moving his foot, doesn’t it make complete sense that he can execute other skills, decision-making off the ball, and anticipate his defender’s movement at the absolute highest level?
It's been difficult to find a way to share the incredible implications of this study. The more we learn about this Neuro-plasticity stuff the more impressed I become with the simplest acts of human communication and motion. The neural orchestration that occurs on the field in one person let alone 11 is truly a miracle in my opinion.
How can this study help coaches decipher what would fit perfectly into their training plan? This study is limited and cannot provide a precise answer, but it can help us support a perspective on the details of our training.
Neymar claims that his talent is partly due to training barefoot with various balls. This was brought up in the study because it is what possibly shaped his brain to produce such a high performing player. Information from the learning environment, barefoot and varying weights and ball textures, made up an extremely rich sensory learning experience for him. Since a large number of sensory endings (via skin and muscle) were touching the balls over an extended period of time there was more information available to his brain.
In the context of this type of training an analysis on the results would include such variables as muscle innervations, contractile speed, brain regions, blood oxygen levels in the brain, years of soccer experience, available range of motion in the subject's ankle, joint injury history, and motor commands of the muscles involved. The researchers speculate that all of these factors can contribute to long-term changes in the brain.
The details of our training matter because they can influence changes in the brain. When a player receives feedback, it matters. How many times a player touches the ball makes a difference. How the player is multi-tasking is the outcome of how well they are using various parts of their brain.
The perspective here is beyond providing an opportunity for 'perfect practice'. The perspective is to make your coaching feedback concise and intentional for attention to detail over the course of an extended period of time. I can tackle the motor sensory opportunities that certain types of training in another article installment, but for now I'm just going to respect Neymar for letting us see the importance of details and long-term training.
*I'd like to thank Amie Kane-Lee of PeakMVMT in Colorado for her brain and patience as a co-author