The changing minds of young footballers
9 October 2012
Insights from the field of neuroscience may lead to changes in football coaching methods.
ESRC-funded research has found that young football players can be at different stages of mental development, affecting their decision-making. This has implications for football coaching methods used to train our up and coming players.
During adolescence, significant changes occur in the cognitive and emotional brain systems. These two systems develop at different rates, with the emotional system developing earlier than the cognitive, decision-making system.
As a result an imbalance occurs, which affects how teenagers think, feel and behave. This imbalance in the teenage mind can cause intense reactions in emotionally charged situations and reduce emotional control.
The impulsive actions and erratic traits of teenagers can be amplified on the pitch, particularly in highly charged situations, such as a referee's decision or a foul by another player.
Such effects may explain over-reaction on the pitch by young players, who could reach their mid-twenties before the cognitive system is fully developed.
According to Perry Walters, the lead author of the study, football coaches need to recognise the changes that their young players are experiencing and modify their methods accordingly.
"Coaches need to be aware that players may be at different stages of mental development, and shouldn't assume that they can all think like adults," he says.
"For example, too much emphasis on winning/losing or a 'fear of making mistakes' culture might negatively impact adolescent players' learning."
The right guidance for young players, accounting for their developing minds, may allow for more young stars to make the cut. A reduced level of anxiety and more emphasis on process rather than outcomes can create a more conducive learning environment.
"Patience should be shown with players whose weaknesses involve poor decision-making," Walters suggests.
The late-teen years are important for young players, as a full-time professional contract may be offered at this time. However, in light of the new research findings, this could disadvantage players whose minds have yet to mature.
The new findings may also have financial implications for contracts. Walters and co-author Paul Holder, who is a FA National Development Coach, suggest young players could be offered less expensive 'developmental contracts' until their early twenties, to allow them to fully mature cognitively.
Further insights from neuroscience have shown teenage minds do not readily create visual representations of hypothetical situations. Imagining scenarios in the mind's eye is a skill that develops with age.
Players are often asked to think about possible consequences of actions during play - yet teenage players may find imagining these scenarios more difficult than adult players. As a result, coaches may need to support current methods with more visual and physical input during coaching.
With more consideration to the workings of the adolescent mind, a greater proportion of potential young stars could go on to have success on the field. The popular refrain "You don’t understand!" among many teenagers may be a thing of the past - among young footballers at least.
- ESRC research project: Neurocognitive perspectives on the development of rapid decision making in adolescents in a sporting context (ES/G030707/1)
- Teenage kicks: football, growth spurts and the brain (FA magazine The Boot Room, September 2012)
- Could neuroscience help future football stars reach their full potential? (University of Bristol press release)