How neuroscience knowledge changed the way Bristol City coach
Written by Simon Austin — June 2, 2021
“IT was very transactional - ‘do as you’re told or else’ - and not very supportive or caring,” recalls Luke Hussey, Bristol City’s Head of Schoolboy Coaching, as he looks back on his experiences at school.
He left at 16 with no qualifications, only to discover a love of learning later in life. Now he has a degree in sports studies, a Masters in coaching science and is midway through a doctorate.
His research topic? The adolescent brain and learning in an elite environment.
“Knowing what I do now about the adolescent brain I realise I wasn’t naughty at school, I just needed some support and guidance."
This increased understanding of the adolescent brain, allied with his own “uncomfortable” memories, have strongly influenced the way Hussey and his coaches work at Bristol City.
Another big influence has been Dr Perry Walters, a former youth player at the club and a part-time coach, who is also an Honorary Research Fellow at the nearby University of Bristol.
Walters did his PhD in educational neuroscience and has since focused on what this knowledge means for football coaches.
“I couldn’t speak highly enough of Perry,” says Hussey. “He’s humble and clever in what he does and has changed how we coach.”
Last year, Walters and Kami Lamakan, an organisational culture expert who has advised clients including HSBC, the UN and the World Wildlife Fund, set up a not-for-profit called IDYOMS, the Institute for the Development of Young Minds.
Their spur was “the growing pool of scientific knowledge that could inform a better, evidence-based approach to youth development.”
Walters adds: "We believed this science could be communicated to coaches in a way that built on their own experiences and encouraged collaboration."
The duo have since developed a workshop for football Academies and recently completed five 90-minute sessions with Bristol City. The workshops, conducted over Zoom because of Covid, involved two groups of five coaches and there were four weekly themes, with a reflection session at the end:
New brain imaging technology has shown that the networks in the pre-frontal region of the brain, which underpin judgement, decision-making and control of emotions, are still developing well into the mid-20s.
This is why UNICEF has described adolescence as “the second window of opportunity” for learning. Previously, there was a belief that the early childhood years were the time to fundamentally influence the development of the brain, with the adolescent regarded as having as “an adult brain with less miles on the clock,” in the words of Walters.
“Because of the plasticity of the adolescent brain, the teenage years and early 20s are actually an optimum time to forge higher-order cognitions,” he adds.
This is one reason why scientists have called for adolescence to be redefined as being from the ages of 10 to 24, rather than the traditional 10 to 19.
This 'opportunity of adolescence' underpins IDYOMS' work and has helped Bristol City's coaches understand their young players better.
“There’s this chaotic part of the journey that adolescents are going through, when they’re exploring and experimenting, and as adults we’re probably pulling our hair out sometimes,” says Hussey. “But, knowing what I do now about developmental neuroscience, I feel like I understand the kids better. I’m more patient, less quick to judge.”
The adolescent brain develops through exposure to factors including culture, education, home and social life, hobbies, nutrition and exercise.
It does this by “rewiring”, which, Walters explains is “making more connections and developing co-ordination between regions." Risk-taking is part of this rewiring process, as adolescents test limits through experimentation.
George Lawtey, the Under-14s coach at Bristol City, says: “A question we’ll often ask as coaches is ‘Why do teenagers do silly stuff?"
The IDYOMS course helped him understand some of the scientific reasons for this.
“Now we know it’s because their brains aren’t fully developed until they’re about 25," he says. "That pre-frontal cortex, it’s why a teenager might think it’s a good idea to kick a ball at someone 20 yards away and it hits a coach.
“The risk they associate with that is less than if you or I did it. When we get frustrated with young players, there’s a little bit of factual science as to why they do what they do. That’s not giving them a free pass and we have boundaries and responses, but the science helps us to understand why things happen and we try not to be authoritarian when we deal with them."
Hussey says this predisposition to risk can actually be harnessed in a positive way.
“The adolescent brain is primed for risky behaviour and I’m trying to embrace that and design sessions that allow the players to be creative and take risks in a positive way," he says.
“You can help people learn, but they have to feel it, see it and do it themselves. A dribbler has to be able to take on people, get it wrong, and then do it again multiple times. If you want creative players, you have to give them an environment that enables that to happen."
A big part of the IDYOMS workshop involved coaches thinking back to their own experiences of adolescence. Lawtey is only 26, meaning he didn't have to think back too far.
"I remembered letting off a stink bomb in a lesson," he reveals. "I thought, 'If I do this I'm going to be so cool.' I cracked it, kicked it under the table, and within five seconds the classroom was being evacuated.
"As soon as I did it, dread and regret filled my body. My answer was the same as you hear from a lot of young players - 'I didn't mean to do it.' And most of the time they don't, they just don't assess the risk."
3. Heightened emotion
Because the frontal networks of the adolescent brain aren't fully developed and interconnected, there can be a bias towards emotional decision-making. Pressure and fear of making mistakes also impact adolescents more than adults.
Walters introduced the concept of red brain and blue brain - similar to the psychological work done by the New Zealand All Blacks - to the Robins' Academy. Red means overwhelmed, inhibited and apprehensive; blue is composed, curious and in-the-moment.
The idea was to help the coaches and players understand these contrasting states of mind and to develop strategies to go from red to blue.
“Perry introduced cards we show the kids that are to do with being in the red and the blue,” explains Hussey. "When they’re emotionally flooded and the emotional part of the brain has taken control, that’s in the red.
“It could be shouting at the referee or losing control of their decision making. They'll reference it on the pitch now and say, ‘Come on, get back in the blue.’ We also use Hudl to get them to send us video clips of when they’ve gone into the red and lost control. They might say, ‘I used this strategy to get back in the blue.’
“We don’t want them in the blue all the time though, because to be an elite performer you need some sort of aggression, so we talk about helpful and unhelpful red as well.”
We’re all aware of the adolescent drive for autonomy, of getting ready to fly the nest. As Walters says, this can be a time of “natural breaking away from family and possibly an anti-authority disposition."
Adolescents often seek increased novelty seeking, exploration and risk-taking, as we've explored above; and their friendships and how they're perceived by peers become super important.
Bristol City have tried to offer space and opportunity for autonomy, allowing their young players to develop personal and technical skills without the constant imposition by adults.
Lawtey says: “For the YDP age groups, the players will do their own warm up with three-teams possession, which gets them touches on the ball and some pressing.
“During the IDYOMS workshop we talked a lot about what true autonomy is though, and it’s something we’re constantly exploring. Is it autonomy when I go in and make the square bigger when they're warming up? Is it true autonomy when there are three coaches stood around?
“Maybe not. Autonomy can be messy and you really have to step back sometimes and let players make their own mistakes and recognise and correct them in their own way."
Hussey says there have been other recent examples of giving players extra responsibility at the Academy.
“Last Monday we did a tournament at Ashton Gate for the foundation phase and our scholars ran it. It was fantastic. They took a team each, coached them, organised the substitutions and who was on which pitch. That gave the next layer of autonomy to the scholars.”
He also says that “sometimes the messenger is more important than the message.”
“We try and use role models, so older players will come in and talk about when they’ve lost control or are scared,” Hussey explains. “As a bloke in his 50s, a 12-year-old boy might not listen to me about being scared before a game, but he will listen to a 19-year-old who’s been in the first team.”
Hussey says: “We pride ourself on our relationships, with the players and their families. That’s what we believe separates us - we really care.”
Despite a difficult season for the first team, there were nine senior debuts by Academy players in 2020/21, including 17-year-old Alex Scott, who signed from Guernsey at the end of 2019 and has also gone on to star for England U18s.
Some might dismiss the above approach as “touchy feely”, but the Academy has been successful in preparing players for first-team football. Hussey says the IDYOMS workshops are an important part of this and will continue into next season.
"I’m going to try and get everyone who's involved with the schoolboys through the IDYOMS course," he says. “That includes the coach drivers, physios, sport scientists - anyone who’s involved with the young player. It’s that important for people to have an understanding of what’s going on in the teenage mind.”