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The Technician: playing faster with better decisions

Technical Coaching Coach About UEFA

We look in-depth at how neuroscience is impacting the development of professional players across Europe.

Manchester City's DutNathan Ake and FC Copenhagen's  Elias Jelert vie for the ball
Manchester City's DutNathan Ake and FC Copenhagen's Elias Jelert vie for the ball Ritzau Scanpix/AFP via Getty Ima

"Brains playing football" is how Jes Buster Madsen, FC Copenhagen’s head of research and development, sees the game of football. Although he admits it’s not a unique perspective, he believes it is an important starting point when discussing the role of neuroscience in coaching and player development.

"Because it's brains playing football and brains work differently depending on how they're trained and their genetic dispositions, there's got to be differences in how individuals process and perceive the world," says Madsen, who joined FC Copenhagen in August 2021. "It means there will also be more optimal ways to perceive the world in terms of speed, accuracy, execution and decision."

Madsen, who worked in academia before football, believes the cognitive skills required by elite level footballers is a mix of many different cognitive categories. "Of course, there's attention to begin with," he explains. "I don't mean focus or concentration. I mean the ability to look towards the stimuli and know what your priorities are."

He also lists scanning abilities, working memory, pattern recognition, visual analysis, anticipation, cognitive flexibility, decision-making and motor inhibition as key to playing the game at the top level. "The way they work together is extremely complicated and extremely intriguing," he adds.

Developing cognitive skills in young players aged 14–19 at FC Copenhagen’s academy is one of Madsen’s many responsibilities. Interestingly, he believes some of the work in this area better fits with more senior players than those in the younger age-groups.

"The older players have more specific ways of analysing and perceiving the world," he explains. "So, it can be easier for us to figure out what it is we are supposed to work on. An Under-14 player is also working on ball mastery and technical and tactical aspects, so they may not always be focused on scan timing or inhibition ability. But a first-team player, or an Under-19 player playing in the Champions League, knows he's working on the details. So, there it actually makes more sense."

Whether it’s youth or senior players, the Danish club has worked ‘from the game’ in the development of its model of neuroscience in football. "Our idea is that we would want the players to have as fast as a pre-decision process as possible," he says. "So, the more they can process of the game before they have to make a decision, the faster they can play. We want players who play fast. If you wait until you receive the ball to analyse your surroundings, you are losing valuable seconds."

Jes Buster Madsen (centre) with young FC Copenhagen players
Jes Buster Madsen (centre) with young FC Copenhagen players

Different cognition for different positions

Although FC Copenhagen put a focus on the time taken to analyse surroundings, there are further important considerations based on playing position. "It’s not only about having the fastest and best cognition," says Madsen. "It's also about having the cognition that is tuned to the things you're supposed to do. For example, the things a winger needs to analyse compared with a central midfielder are different. So, you have to take the individual into consideration when you're analysing cognitive aspect."

FC Copenhagen use a number of different types of cognitive measurements when looking at individual players. "For us, it's not enough just to do classical cognitive testing, where you sit in front of the screen and press the buttons," says Madsen. "So, we also developed our own system together with a Norwegian software company. We have developed a test tool that allows us to see the players’ ability to scan and remember objects in their surroundings."

The results of the tests are combined with some information gained from reaction tests as well as more ‘classic’ cognitive tests that the club feels are relevant. A player report including data and coach observations is then compiled.

Madsen is keen to stress that the main work the club is doing is focused on the training ground and not screens. "We don't really spend that much time on cognitive training, which is the holy grail for many people," he says. "We are extremely critical of the idea of putting players in front of a software or VR system, train them two hours a week and then believe they become better football players. Instead, we said let’s start with testing and assessing the players and then work with the knowledge on the pitch. And then let's develop ideas and methodology on how to do that and how to make the players better."

Effective communication in the football environment

Madsen’s transition from academia to football has involved developing an understanding of how a football club operates and the communication techniques required to be effective. "I spent a lot of time with the coaches understanding training: How do you plan a session? What are the words being used? What are the things we're trying to achieve? These things are important. Slowly, I gained more and more understanding of that whole world."

Another key part of Madsen’s journey into football has been developing his communication style and understanding how much information to provide. "I had to learn how to communicate the knowledge," he explains. "I remember my first presentation. I had around 20 data points for each player. When the meeting was finished, nobody knew anything. That's just too much information.

"So, today, I still keep the 20 data points and we can take them out and look at them if we're interested in a specific player. But the general evaluation is more simple. We’ll give a straight recommendation for each player, such as he should work on reaction or scanning. Then if the coaches want us to progress with this, we go into more detail and look at all the numbers, and maybe do some video analysis."

Advice for clubs who want to adopt a neuroscience approach

Although Madsen now works in a team of two people focused on research and development, he believes that other clubs can be effective in this area without a lot of resources. "We started by not buying any products because we were unsure," he says. "In some ways, that ended up being the most important thing we ever did because that made us think really deeply about these things."

His advice to other clubs is to develop their own theory of cognition by working with players on the pitch. "The model could basically be: scanning, analysis, decision, action. That would be enough. Then try to look at players with that model and analyse players from that perspective. It’s better than buying a really expensive training test tool, getting a lot of data and then asking ‘What does the data mean?’"

How to interpret the data in the context of the game is still a challenge for all those working in this area, he explains. "I think people tend to think a little bit too much about discrete objects and values isolated from the game. But they're not: it's perception and perception is on the pitch. So, create a vocabulary and integrate it into training in the coaching points, and that's free."

Embedding cognitive science into the way clubs work with players can offer a bright future, concludes Madsen. "It's so important that cognitive science becomes a part of how you work with players and not how you evaluate and exclude players," he says. "You need to interpret each cognitive profile, together with the actual person and the team they are on. From there you can start to have extremely insightful, interesting, engaging conversations with players about what are optimal strategies for perceiving and analysing the game. That's the most important thing.

"If you can help them to play faster and make better decisions, then the cognitive neuroscience has succeeded. If it just becomes another data point we're collecting without thinking about it deeply, then it is not going to be a success."

How PSV Eindhoven have integrated cognitive testing from Under-13 through to the senior team

Cognitive testing has been an important part of PSV Eindhoven’s academy and first-team programme since 2016. Twice a year, each player from the Under-13s through to the senior team undergoes a series of neurocognitive tests at the club. Since the project started eight years ago, the club has logged the results, leading to a rich store of information.

"We have the results from nearly 2,000 tests completed with more than 600 athletes," says Jurrit Sanders, PSV Eindhoven lead academy sports scientist. "It means we have created our own database and our own norm scores. With this information, we start a conversation with our coaches, and a lot of things come out of this."

The Dutch Eredivisie side use an online test consisting of four games taking approximately 45 minutes to complete. "The first game is about working memory," explains Sanders. "The second game is about anticipation skills. The third is about control and reaction speed in more automated situations, and the fourth game is about attention and reaction speed in more complex thinking."

Sanders stresses that the club thinks deeply and critically about how the results of online tests transfer to the pitch. "Through the experiences we’ve had over the last eight years and all the conversations we’ve had with coaches, but also internal and external experts on the neuroscience side, we are quite confident that this is really adding value to our way of working."

How the cognitive aspect of football is now embedded into the club’s coaching approach is evidence of this, says Sanders. "Step by step, cognition has become normal within the academy," he says. "Everybody's talking about it and everybody's aware of it. Next to technical, tactical and physical skills, cognition is a really important part of our model. The most important thing is that it's within the approach of the coaches and how they approach football."

The findings of the neurocognitive tests help coaches to work more effectively with individual players, says Sanders. "We believe working in this way is helping the coaches to understand why they see specific behaviour on the pitch," he says. "We give the coaches tips about how to approach certain individual players on and off the pitch. From these discussions and conversations, there will be improvement because we will approach players differently."

PSV Eindhoven's   Johan Bakayoko in training
PSV Eindhoven's Johan Bakayoko in trainingAFP via Getty Images

Translation into on- and off-pitch activities

Training sessions at the PSV Eindhoven academy focus on different aspects of the club’s model for cognition in football. "We see it as a process of three steps," says Sanders. "The first step is to perceive the environment and 95 to 98% of that is done by vision. It could also be through hearing your teammates and coaches and also through touch. But most of all it’s through vision.

"Following this, the information that you observe needs to be translated into a choice. This is done through a lot of comparisons in the brain. For instance, you’ll compare the actual situation on the pitch with what you’ve learned before through your own library: what you've seen in the past, but also what is told to you by the coach and the tactics you've been given.

"All these comparisons will lead to a choice and that needs to be executed into a football action. So that means there needs to a message sent from the brain to the muscles. This is a continuous process. At the stage you are executing the action, new information will come in and it means you may need to stop and start a new action. The idea of inhibition is important here."

Individual work to support players

Part of the work PSV Eindhoven do to develop players’ cognitive skills focuses on individual and small group practices. "As well as focusing on cognition in the team practices, we also bring the players inside to a more isolated setting," says Sanders. "Working with one, two or three players, we will really overload them with information and stimuli to either improve scanning or execution of technical skills under pressure. We’ll select the players from the information we get from testing, combined with what the coach sees on the pitch and what the players also think they need to train."

How Sheffield United are focusing on body regulation to help their players perform cognitive skills more effectively

For players to effectively perform cognitive skills such as scanning their bodily state must be regulated, says Sally Needham, Sheffield United academy’s human development and performance culture lead.

"To use cognitive skills, you've got to have a regulated bodily state," says Needham, who joined the English Premier League club in December 2020, after working at the English Football Association and Doncaster Belles for over a decade. "If your bodily state is not in a regulated state, your eye movement goes offline and your heart rate and bodily movement will change. It means thinking and feeling skills become limited.

"When a player is regulated, they can move and plan and predict before they receive the ball. They will also be able to point, talk and give signs like a thumbs-up or a smile. They'll be able to see the pictures, they'll be able to plan and predict, and they'll be able to scan and execute. But if they are dysregulated, all of this becomes a challenge."

To ensure players aren’t dysregulated during a game or training, Needham talks about being in the ‘red or green zone’. Although this is not how the brain works, it is a model to help young players better understand their experience, she explains. "We talk a lot about the 'red and green' zone. So, when they are in the red zone, they describe the experience as ‘going wandering in games, blank or daydreaming’. Then if they make a mistake, some individuals may experience a narrow vision and make more bad decisions. This is when they are in the red zone or flight mode."

Being dysregulated, or in the ‘red zone’, can have a negative impact on players’ physical performance, says Needham. "In terms of a physiological response, we know that if some of our players are in a stress-state response before they start, then 10–15 minutes into the game, they will be finding the game physically difficult. This is because their heart rate is either lowering and they go into immobilisation, or it is increasing and mobilising for fight or flight mode. The body is just there to protect us."

Players need to be in a regulated bodily state in order to cope with the demands of elite-level football.
Players need to be in a regulated bodily state in order to cope with the demands of elite-level football.Getty Images

Giving the players more ‘soil’ to cope with the challenges of elite performance

Needham describes her work at Sheffield United as giving the players ‘more soil’ to cope with the challenges that elite level performance demands. "We look at how we support and develop a player's bodily state," she says. "I call it ‘soil’, so the more soil they have in their system, then the longer they can stay in a more optimal level of regulation. When you have a bigger window of tolerance – a bigger soil – you have more time on the ball because you can see pictures and scan a lot clearer. When your bodily state is out of regulation, then that becomes very limited."

At Sheffield United, Needham has used yoga, breathwork, journalling and body and brain education to help develop young players’ tolerance levels. "With the boys in the professional development phase (17–21), we give them the knowledge about how the body and the brain works, and then we give them the tools to use it," she says. "So, all the players get yoga, breathwork and a journal as part of their programme, but then certain players will get a number of specific tools, depending on what they need."

Needham explains that the brain and body of young footballers is still developing up until their mid-twenties, so it is crucial to support young players in this age group. "At the club, we were clear that we wanted the players to know themselves," she says. "The brain and body don’t settle down until the player is in their mid-twenties. So, we wanted to give them that knowledge of themselves early on in their journey, and give them some really good performance habits, instead of trying to be more reflective later on."

The learning process is supported through a focus on sleep, mindfulness and self-talk. "We have a mindfulness room and colouring walls," says Needham. "We do yoga and breathwork in the programme, and we also do a lot on language. They know that certain language and self-talk will keep them in the red zone and that alternative self-talk can bring them back into the green zone.

"For example, a centre forward who misses a chance and gets frustrated can get stuck in that emotion. If they miss again, it's a negative comment again, which keeps them stuck in that feeling. We know that happens and it’s normal. What’s more important is how quickly they reset. So, we have a reset strategy that brings them back into the green zone."

The importance of arrival activities, structure boards and a personal greeting

Coaches at all levels of the game can take steps to help their players – and themselves – remain in a regulated state, says Needham. Arrival activities, structure boards and a focus on personal greetings are all useful strategies.

"Being a grassroots coach can be difficult. The coach might have to travel to the session straight from work and have lots of jobs to do when they arrive," she says. "So, it’s really important that they regulate themselves before they start working with the players. The self-awareness of the coach is very important, and they need to be aware of their own self-regulation and body language. A dysregulated adult cannot help to regulate a dysregulated child. So, the adult has their own needs they need to regulate."

Greeting each player as they arrive and putting them straight into an arrival activity is an important part of the ‘before’ session process. "We know that the threat detection system is focused on the eyes and mouth and we know the importance of tone of voice and body language. By smiling and using a personal greeting when the players arrive it will allow each individual the chance to settle. By putting them straight into an arrival activity it will also allow the coach a chance to regulate themselves."

A structure board can be used to outline the plan for the evening and can help children manage their anxiety, says Needham. "Children will often come in and say ‘What are we doing tonight?’ or ‘Are we playing at the weekend?’. These are anxiety traits. Clearly outlining the plan for the session along with timings can help lower a player’s anxiety."

If a child does become dysregulated, the best thing to do is breath work, says Needham. "The breath is the remote control of our body. So, if there is a child who is dysregulated, it is best to do some deep breaths. The coach can do it along with the child because we can regulate each other’s nervous system through safety."

By creating a safe environment for players to train and play, a greater level of challenge can also be used. "We need to create as much bodily state safety so we can then push players on the grass to strengthen their resilience," explains Needham. "It's not about creating this really comfortable environment with no challenge; you've got to have the safety to create the challenge as well. If you've not got a positive bodily state and then start pushing them, they just dysregulate."