02. Experts Corner

The Difference Between the Best and the Rest? The Brain

June 26, 2019

During my decade coaching at Manchester United F.C. it always amazed me just how much athletic skill-sets vary from athlete to athlete, especially at world-class level.  An example is Paul Scholes, one of the players I admired most throughout my time at club.  As the strength and conditioning coach, I can tell you his physical attributes gave him little advantage over his competitors. What he did have, however, was incredible mental abilities.  This is why Sir Alex Ferguson called him: ‘One of the greatest football brains Manchester United has ever had’. What’s the secret to this edge between the ears? Well, here are a number of lessons I’ve learned that help me craft superior athletes.

The Mental Advantage is Critical

The latest sports science studies show that when elite players are compared to sub-elite players, the differences in mental performance are huge.  Reading and responding to game flow, predicting opponents and ball trajectories, and responding rapidly under pressure are key areas where elite performers gain a critical edge in competitive play.  These factors are typically under-trained, yet the brain’s neuroplasticity allows rapid performance gains, with long-lasting effects.  The missing piece of the puzzle is utilizing the right techniques, which is where the latest training technologies like NeuroTracker come in.

As the first ever coach to use this, and other cutting-edge training tools, I’ve never looked back.  Here are some key reasons why cognitive training tools like NeuroTracker can make a difference.

You Can’t Win if you Don’t Know What to Do

In order to excel on the field, awareness is fundamental. One of the biggest challenges is maintaining multi-focal attention on several moving targets at the same time. On the field this involves perceiving players moving around the athlete, identifying movement patterns in and out of vision, and predicting motion trajectories. Only out of all this chaos can winning plays be predicted and seized upon.

Rather than coaching athletes for specific plays or situations, ideally we want to sharpen a player’s cognitive abilities in a way that can be applied to any game situation. It’s a similar idea, for instance, to doing squats to improve sprinting and jumping power.  Attention-based training like NeuroTracker, benefits the all-important decision-making area of the brain.  This is because the speed and quality of action-response choices rely heavily on awareness and reading the scene fluidly.

Cognitive Overload is Key

The added factor here is that when a player’s capacity of attention is overwhelmed by information or psychological pressure, or even fatigue, mental focus breaks down. Momentary attentional lapses often result in critical errors during intense moments of big games.  For this reason, attention needs to be trained at very high levels, so that it becomes robust enough to withstand the pressures of competition.

It’s pretty easy to follow action when there is little movement, but when motion speeds up, the demands on the brain increase dramatically.  Most sports demand following dynamic and rapidly moving scenes, with complex movement patterns.  Top athletes need to not only process this, but to do so at an incredible speed.  One reason why I named my elite training center Seed of Speed.

Training Needs to be Right in the Zone

This is why training needs to condition mental focus at each athlete’s processing speed threshold, otherwise it’s going to be tough to keep on top of the action when it matters most.  I use several training tools to help achieve thresholds, but NeuroTracker is a really nice example of how this can be done. It pushes each athlete’s speed processing limits every session.  The training effects show this actually speeds up brain waves, associated with greater alertness and mental focus.  More technologies should apply this conditioning principle, because in the zone is right where elite athletes need to be each and every time they train.

Vision is All About Knowing Where to Look

Vision dominates about 80% of the vast amount of sensory information we take in every second.  Mastering how to use vision is a skill which separates the good from the best in any team-sport.  The classic difference found between elites and amateurs, is that amateurs over scan for detail, darting their focus point around too much.

Why is this a problem?  It causes blurred vision in-between scan points, so if your eyes are constantly moving from point to point, most of the time the scene is blurred - compromising peripheral awareness.  Elite athletes tend to scan much less frequently, focusing only on pertinent details. This helps them to spread their visual attention mentally to draw in as much information as possible.

But most importantly it allows players to focus for longer, gleaning information missed with a quick glance. For instance, reading body language to predict exactly where a ball is about be kicked before the boot hits the leather. I coached Cristiano Ronaldo on a daily basis during his 5 years rise to FIFA footballer of the year, and this video shows just how big an advantage his grey matter gives him.

Train Vision Early

It’s not intuitive, so vision training is important, especially for younger athletes.  A technique known as a ‘visual pivot’ is something which you anchor your focus point to, while actually paying attention to action in the periphery.  With NeuroTracker it involves tracking multiple moving targets. The task forces the athlete to process complex information across a wide field of view while looking towards the center of the scene.

As teenage brains are still very much developing into fully fledged sports minds, techniques like this start to hone their behavior when it’s most important. When a young athlete is absorbing more critical information and being more aware, they are working out their brains more than their rivals. Over years it adds-up in a very real way – knowing where to be at the right time.

Perception is the Key

This matters more than most might think. For example in a game of soccer, a player typically only has contact with the actual ball for around four minutes. The other hour and a half they are essentially just seeing and moving. And this is what makes magical players – great movement. In most competition situations, winning game-plays are already perceived and decided before they actually happen.

In summary, cognitive training technologies can be great tools for improving athletes’ skillsets in modern day sports. However, based on my experience, I’ve found that the tools that condition combined attention, processing speed, and visual awareness, are the most valuable.

About Mick Clegg

Mick has been a personal coach and trainer for 36 years. He had the amazing privilege to work at Manchester United Football Club from 2000 to 2011. He was the Power Development (Strength & Conditioning) Coach and fitness trainer to many of the world's top football players including Cristiano Ronaldo, David Beckham, Wayne Rooney, Ryan Giggs and Gary Neville, to name a few.

Since leaving Manchester United, Mick has continued to coach other top-class athletes including several world champions in different sports. Learn more about Mick’s work by visiting http://www.seedofspeed.com/

You can also check out one of his previous Experts Corner blogs.

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