Is football ignoring the brain game?

Luke Shaw and Jose Mourinho

Luke Shaw and Jose Mourinho

JOSE MOURINHO said there was no excuse for Luke Shaw’s immature decision making during Manchester United’s 1-1 draw against Everton last week. Neuroscience may beg to differ though.

Recent research has shown the human brain is still developing well into the mid-20s and Dr Perry Walters, visiting research fellow at Bristol University, says young players deserve more help.

“In the last 10 years, new brain imaging technology has shown the networks in the frontal region that underpin judgement, decision making and control of emotions are still developing well into the mid-20s,” Walters, the psychology consultant on the Football Association's Advanced Youth Award told TGG.

"The brain matures by rewiring, making more connections and developing co-ordination between regions. Because of the plasticity of the adolescent brain, the teenage years and early 20s are an optimal time to forge higher-order cognitions. Decision-making, creativity, control of emotions and awareness of consequences can all still be developed.”

Mauricio Pochettino may or may not be aware of such research, but the Spurs boss agrees that young players require extra patience and understanding.

“You have to feel things the way they [young players] do, show empathy," the Argentine said in January. "Nowadays the more human leader is the one that is successful. The iron fist is a thing of the past.”

England trio Shaw, John Stones and Ross Barkley have all been criticised for lack of ‘game intelligence' in recent months, even though they are 21, 22 and 23 respectively.

While deficiencies in technique, conditioning or tactical awareness will usually be worked on individually, in 'add ons' at training, scant regard is paid to psychological development.

“If a player has deficits physically, for example, then you would put programmes around that,” Walters says. “With psychology, we often leave it to chance. A research paper last year interviewed 10 Premier League academy directors who said the mindset of a player was the underpinning reason for them making it as a professional. But often that is left to chance."

"With psychology we often leave it to chance" Dr Perry Walters

This also has an impact at Academy level. Risk taking and creativity is at its height during adolescence (the ages of 13 to 19), but it's also the period of the greatest sensitivity to criticism and difficulty in controlling emotions.

The task for a good coach is to create an environment that encourages this risk taking and creativity, Walters argues. “You don’t want kids to be frightened to try anything, to make a mistake. Mistakes are the route to mastery.”

MK Dons applied these principles when developing Dele Alli, who joined them at the age of 11.

Assistant academy manager Dan Micciche explains: “We sometimes have a culture where the way Dele played when he was younger would be described as ‘showboating’ or trying to be ‘too clever’.

"But we would celebrate the way he played. The exciting part of his game would be the bit we were waiting to see. That type of play that would put a smile on our faces: we didn’t want him to get rid of it.

“Dele didn't drown in a sea of learning objectives. We were cautious not to overburden him with too many learning objectives, instead focusing on making his strengths better rather than focussing on weaknesses."

Walters fears talented young players are being rejected for 'bad attitude' or poor game management when these attributes can still be developed.

“British football has historically made decisions on releasing players relatively early at 16 years of age," he says. "There are good scientific arguments for keeping players as part of longer developmental programmes."

Communicating with young players is key.

“Over a five-week period we spoke to the Under-15s at St George's Park about their development, telling them ‘this is going on in your brain and it's a unique time to learn new things.’ That gave them more impetus. We also told them ‘emotions are really strong at your age – here are some strategies to deal with it.’”

Dan Micciche: Eager not to inhibit Alli's creativity

Strategies might include the use of positive imagery and trigger words once negative emotions begin to take hold.

Walters wants there to be more research so neuroscience can be more widely utilised in football.

"I wouldn't necessarily describe myself as an expert on neuroscience, but I have experience of playing, coaching and academic research," he says.

"I want to to develop a research centre to link the FA, Bristol City and Bristol University together. It's about getting everyone on board."

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