Case Study: The Brain And Football - Part 1

"We need to stop thinking football is only a matter of the body. Skilfulness will only grow if we better understand the mental part of developing a player" - Michel Bruyninckx on his innovation and holistic approach in coaching

Countless reasons have been put forward to explain England's repeated failure at international tournaments, so here is another one - a lack of intelligence. Nothing do with GSCEs, A-levels or university degrees, mind, but when it comes to football IQ, surely England has been sitting in the dunce's corner for too long. A year ago former England international Chris Waddle hinted at English footballers' cerebral deficiency when he said Arsenal winger Theo Walcott lacked a "football brain". So given its importance, why is the brain the one part of the body for which players receive no special training or instruction?

That is where Belgian Uefa A licence coach Michel Bruyninckx comes in. Over the last decade Bruyninckx has been training young players with what he calls "brain centred learning", a common idea in education, but a new concept for football. Based on the premise that the brain is at least 1,000 times faster than any computer, Bruyninckx's intention is to make sure the young players he trains are programmed to take full advantage of the body's "hard disk" and become more skilful and intelligent footballers.

Standard Liege midfielder Steven Dufour - in the past linked with a move to Manchester United - and Utrecht attacking midfielder Dries Mertens, who came close to joining Ajax in the January transfer window, are the two most high-profile players with whom the Belgian coach has worked. "He has given me that crucial extra metre in my head that is so important," Belgian international Mertens, who can kick the ball with both feet at a speed of 74mph, told BBC.

There are plenty more players coming off the Bruyninckx production line - boys like Wannes van Tricht and girls like Imke Courtois - while clubs such as Lille in France and Espanyol in Spain have been in contact with other teenagers that the Belgian coach has helped to develop. When Germinal Beerschot and Belgian international midfielder Faris Haroun came to work with Bruyninckx, he could not kick the ball with his left foot. Two years later his former club Racing Genk thought he was left-footed.

"Michel's methods and philosophy touch on the last frontier of developing world-class individuals on and off the field - the brain. His methods transcend current learning frameworks and challenge traditional beliefs of athlete development in team sports. It is pioneering work, better still it has broad applications across many sporting disciplines," renowned tennis coach educator Pete McCraw stated.

Bruyninckx coaches about 68 youngsters between the age of 12 and 19, players affiliated to first and second division Belgian clubs like Mechelen, Westerlo, Anderlecht, Sint-Truiden, OHL Leuven, Vise, KVK Tienen. The youngsters have been selected by the Belgian football federation and study at Redingenhof secondary school near Brussels, an institution which plays a key role in Bruyninckx's work. With his methods endorsed by ex-Belgian national coaches Paul van Himst and Robert Waseige, Bruyninckx estimates 25% of the 100 or so players that he has coached have turned professional or are in the women's national squads.

Compare this one-man Belgian football academy's success rate to England where, according to the Professional Footballers' Association chief executive Gordon Taylor, of the 600 boys joining Premier League and Football League clubs at the age of 16, 500 are out of the game by the time they are aged 21.

"We need to stop thinking football is only a matter of the body. Skilfulness will only grow if we better understand the mental part of developing a player. Cognitive readiness, improved perception, better mastering of time and space in combination with perfect motor functioning," the 59-year-old Bruyninckx commented. A world away from the traditional philosophy of English football, Bruyninckx's idea, which he began studying 20 years ago, is to "multitask" the brain.

His drills start off simply but become increasingly more complicated to challenge players' focus and maintain their concentration. Sometimes players train in bare feet to make them more "sensorially" aware; at other times they would play simple maths games while doing physical conditioning work. Bruyninckx emphasises teamwork ahead of individualism, while aggression is frowned on - players do not wear shinpads - with tackling seen as the last solution to recover the ball.

"You have to present new activities that players are not used to doing. If you repeat exercises too much the brain thinks it knows the answers. By constantly challenging the brain and making use of its plasticity you discover a world that you thought was never available. Once the brain picks up the challenge you create new connections and gives remarkable results," Bruyninckx added.

"It makes perfect sense to use lots of different approaches in order to maximize potential in people, because they are all different. Similarly, well-rounded training is bound to be better than singular, focused, training. To say these multi-pronged approaches work because they use multiple parts of our brain makes it sound more scientific, but really, that's about marketing. We can't do anything without our brains 'doing it' for us, so absolutely everything we train at involves changing our brains," said Professor Jessica Grahn of the Centre for Brain and Mind at the University of Western Ontario.

It is an innovative approach, though neuroscientist Grahn strikes a word of caution with the "brain centred learning" label. Labels aside, what is indisputable is the enormous amount of research that Bruyninckx has devoted to his method, which incorporates the idea of "differential learning", a training approach pioneered by Professor Wolfgang Schoellhorn of Mainz University. "The idea is that there is no repetition of drills, no correction and players are encouraged not to think about what has gone wrong if they have made a mistake," explained Schoellhorn, an expert in kinesiology or human movement.

Original article by John Sinnott
Source: BBC, Eurosport, Bacons Football Academy

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