One of the worst names I was ever called on the soccer pitch was a “head-the-ball”.
The insult was delivered by a spotty, bean-pole left winger called ‘Spangles’ whose hardened North Side of Dublin football team were scoring on my team almost at will. I’d brought Spangles down hard after he’d twisted me around on his third trip towards goal and he was pissed.
Being a head-the-ball meant that you were stupid, thick, useless and was spat out in contempt.
In international play, England’s soccer talent is a head-the-ball. A proud country that aches to succeed in international football, it stubbornly holds onto its traditional beliefs about talent and training.
Across the Channel in Belgium, Michel Bruyninckx, an innovative soccer coach focuses on his charges heads as much as their feet as he trains their brains to be more efficient.
Through a series of increasingly complex and challenging on-field exercises, Bruyninckx increases the number of touches a player gets ten-fold, even a hundred-fold. These touches and exercises are designed to challenge the player’s brain in many different ways, often to failure, and in the process, improve their footballing intuition.
“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.” – Michel Bruyninckx
It’s a radical step from the traditional methods in most football academies and professional teams which focus on physical training and matchplay to prepare their recruits for the elite level. But it’s an open acknowledgment of the importance of the athletic brain – and that it can be trained.
His results are difficult to measure, it’s hard to quantify performance improvement in football like you can in baseball for example, and that’s one reason why the English football establishment is reluctant to accept Bruyninckx’s methods. For right now, the success is measured in the high percentage of his students (25%) who reach the professional level compared to 16% who emerge from the minor leagues of the Premier League and Football League system.
More telling are comments like this one from Belgian international Dries Mertens:
“He has given me that crucial extra meter in my head that is so important.”
Does this athletic brain training work in football? Probably. Brain plasticity is now accepted as real but the refinement of training methods to deliberately shape the athlete’s brain is just getting started. Football is a game of changing patterns, tightening and loosening, twisting and weaving the 22 players across the pitch. No match is like another, but similar enough in ways that players, if trained properly, can better predict and respond to the chaos.
As the European football teams test and refine these brain training techniques, I hope that England can shrug off its head-the-ball label. The game is more interesting when England is in the mix but it’s been 45 years since it raised the World Cup. I just wonder if it can let go of tradition to keep pace with the rest.