How FC Copenhagen are leading the way in football brain training
Written by Simon Austin — November 7, 2023
IN football, we tend to focus on the decisions players make when they have the ball.
Jes Buster Madsen is concerned with what they do before.
“As a neuroscientist, I am interested in all the processes leading up to the decision,” FC Copenhagen’s Head of Research and Development tells the TGG Podcast (which you can listen to below).
He’s not alone. Arsene Wenger has previously said “great players isolate from the ball” and “it’s about getting as much information as possible before you get the ball.”
Which makes it strange that relatively little research had been done on this in football.
“We know a lot about the physiology, we know everything about the calves and the thighs, we know a lot about the tactics, but we are not so knowledgeable about the brain processes that underly these things,” Buster Madsen says.
In fairness, there are some good reasons for this, because traditional scientific methods for analysing brain patterns don’t tend to work in a football environment, as Buster Madsen explains.
Neuroscientists (who focus on the brain and its impact on behaviour and cognitive functions) can’t do a genetic manipulation of their subject and then examine their brain, as they might with a fruit fly or rat, for example, because “you can’t kill Academy players and do that research.”
They can’t “implant electrodes into the brains of players” (which is known as deep brain stimulation), while “movement is an antagonist” to brain imaging, so “you can’t put an fMRI scanner on Cristiano Ronaldo and ask him to kick a ball, because it weighs multiple tons.”
So Buster Madsen, who has a Masters in cognitive neuroscience, had to be “more speculative” when he started working in football.
JOINING FC COPENHAGEN
Buster Madsen's interest in football neuroscience arose during lockdown, when, like so many of us, he had extra time on his hands.
“Since I love football, I started looking into what we know about the brain and football and I realised there wasn’t a lot,” he explains. “Most of the research was on concussions.
“I also realised there were a lot of tech companies arguing they had the best solution for training the brain in football and I was a bit skeptical about that, due to my knowledge about neuroscience.”
So he phoned Sune Smith-Nielsen, the FC Copenhagen Academy Manager, and they had a chat on the phone. This led to a face-to-face meeting and eventually to Buster Madsen delivering a presentation to some of the club's staff.
"We said, 'Let’s look at the game with this textbook neuroscience knowledge and see what kind of insights we can get'"
“My perspective was, 'Don’t buy anything, don’t believe anything, just start at the most basic level, because basic neuroscience can help player development and training',” he recalls.
Buster Madsen must have made a good impression, because he was offered a role as FC Copenhagen’s first Head of Research and Development in the summer of 2021. His first objective was to try and work out what happens inside the brain when someone plays football, “picking knowledge from basketball, American Football, general perception theories, general knowledge about the brain, attention research, scanning research from Geir Jordet and more.”
Then “we looked at which types of cognitive capacities are linked to high performance in football. There have been six, eight studies on that, showing there are capacities that elite players out-perform in."
(Cognition is defined as the process of acquiring knowledge and understanding through thought, experience and the senses).
He spent about a year formulating these “hypotheses” and “giving lectures to the coaches, talking about this constantly” before taking the theories and understanding out onto the pitch.
“We said, 'Let’s look at the game with this textbook neuroscience knowledge and then see what kind of insights we can get that we didn’t have before'.”
One early win was to explain, implement and analyse the implementation of 'ecological psychology' in training. This basically means “all aspects of your exercises and training have a link to the way you play… because your perceptional system is only being trained in the environment it is in.”
This extended to developing player 'priming'. Again, Buster Madsen provides some definitions:
- Perception (the first of the 14 elements of a cognitive model that we will come onto later) means “all the raw data your system receives.”
- Attention (the next element of the model) is “the types of perceptional stimuli you are constantly aware of.”
- Priming is “telling your attention what to focus on, which can be both conscious and unconscious.”
Using the principles of ecological psychology, Buster Madsen and the coaches had the idea of priming players “on the movements of team-mates rather than whiteboard tactics”, because, “how much do you actually learn from dots and arrows on a whiteboard?”
Buster Madsen adds: "That takes a lot of intelligence to take those dots and transfer them into a bodily movement. When you are playing the game you might discount that information, because you are not really able to take that into a movement.
“So we started to work a bit more on what is the movement that allows for that tactical change. Say you want to tell the striker to make the deep run. Do you do that by saying, ‘When the number eight has the ball and is about to turn, you make the run’, or do you explain this with dots on a whiteboard?
“The first method is best, because the brain is immensely skilled at understanding visual clues. The biggest sensory system in the brain, which takes up by far the most space, is the visual system. So you should utilise that immense capacity.”
COGNITIVE ASSESSMENT TOOL
Next came the biggest project of all: developing a cognitive assessment tool with 14 different measurable abilities. This has been done in collaboration with the VR company Be Your Best.
The tool is called the BYBCAT (Be Your Best Cognitive Assessment Tool) and gives a cognitive profile based on a series of special tests done using the VR system.
Buster Madsen won’t reveal all 14 of the cognitive abilities, because these will be published in a scientific paper next year (hopefully February), but perception, attention, pattern recognition, scanning, working memory, motor inhibition and decision are among the 14.
Scanning has tended to get most of the attention (pardon the pun) in football, but this is like “looking only at the engine of the car… when you need other things to work too,” Buster Madsen says.
He adds that you can usually identify a player’s position purely from their cognitive profile.
“We have found that central players in our Academy have higher rates of scanning and also working memory and pattern recognition. Wide players have a tendency to have much better reaction times.
“That allows us to say if that player is supposed to play first team in the next year, he needs to develop the cognitive capacities that are needed in his position, so you can have a way more specialised focus in terms of what to train and how to develop the player.”
As with technical skills, cognitive abilities can be trained and developed - although this is easier the younger a player is.
Buster Madsen, who works primarily with the 14s to 19s, says: “99% of all skills can be trained. Everything in the brain can be trained. If you are blind, you can teach yourself to see from sounds. There is overwhelming evidence that the brain is neuroplastic and can change.
“It takes at least three to six months to scan, for example, which is why it is better to tell the U14 player than the U21 - the earlier the better.”
And what about the future of cognitive neuroscience in football? The Dane believes it will be one of the biggest growth areas in the game in the years to come.
“There is going to be way more of this cognitive testing in the future,” Buster Madsen says. “The clubs have the money and want to compete on any marginal gain they can find.
“The brain is such a fundamental thing in this that I’m sure more tests are going to come, more neuroscientists are going to start to be involved in this, especially at the Academy level.
“It could be that every club in the top 50 in the world has a cognitive neuroscientist, I don’t know. Our U14s have a physical trainer, their load is being looked at, monitored, and it might be the same for the cognitive.
“You can increase your playing speed quite a lot with preparation and that’s quite easy.”