When describing what’s wrong with today’s youth soccer coaching, Michel Bruyninckx points to his head. “We need to stop thinking football is only a matter of the body,” the 59-year old Belgian Uefa A license coach and Standard Liège academy director recently told the BBC. “Skillfulness 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.”
We’re not talking about dribbling around orange cones here. Bruyninckx’s approach, which he dubs “brain centered learning” borrows heavily from the constructivist theory of education that involves a total immersion of the student in the learning activity.
In fact, there are three components to the related concept of “brain based” teaching:
- Orchestra immersion – the idea that the student must be thrown into the pool of the learning experience so that they are fully immersed in the experience.
- Relaxed alertness – a way of providing a challenging environment for the student but not have them stressed out by the chance of error.
- Active processing – the means by which a student can constantly process information in different ways so that it is ingrained in his neural pathways, allowing them to consolidate and internalize the new material.
This “training from the neck up” approach is certainly different than the traditional emphasis on technical skills and physical fitness. The brain seems to be the last frontier for sports training and others are starting to take note of it.
“I think that coaches either forget, or don’t even realise, that football is a hugely cognitive sport,” said the Uefa-A licence coach Kevin McGreskin in a recent Sports Illustrated story. “We’ve got to develop the players’ brains as well as their bodies but it’s much easier to see and measure the differences we make to a player’s physiology than we can with their cognitive attributes.”
At the Standard Liège facility outside of Brussels, Bruyninckx currently coaches about 68 players between the age of 12 and 19, who have been linked with first and second division Belgian clubs. If there was any question if his methods are effective, about 25% of the 100 or so players that he has coached have turned pro. By comparison, according to the Professional Footballers’ Association, of the 600 boys joining pro clubs at age 16, 500 are out of the game by age 21.
His training tactics try to force the players’ brains to constantly multitask so that in-game decision making can keep up with the pace of the game. “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,” Bruyninckx added. “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.”
The geometry of the game is stressed through most training exercises. Soccer is a game of constantly changing angles which need to be instantly analyzed and used before the opportunity closes. Finding these angles has to be a reaction from hours of practice since there is no time to search during a game.
“Football is an angular game and needs training of perception — both peripheral sight and split vision,” said Bruyninckx. “Straight, vertical playing increases the danger of losing the ball. If a team continuously plays the balls at angles at a very high speed it will be quite impossible to recover the ball. The team rhythm will be so high that your opponent will never get into the match.”
Certainly, brain-centered learning faces enormous inertia among the coaching establishment. Still, for those teams looking for the extra edge, the Bruyninckx method is gaining fans. “Michel’s methods and philosophy touch on the last frontier of developing world-class individuals on and off the field – the brain,” respected tennis coach Pete McCraw stated. “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.”