Players need to speed up decision making

Some footballers seem to have more time on the ball, they seem to know where everyone is. It's not magic, it's merely observation and developing the mental pathways in the same way an athlete does.

Players need to speed up decision making



The object is to speed up the decision making process, a type of thinking that is new in football, just as using analysis and analytics are relatively new. We have all seen players disposed because it takes them too long to figure out what to do, like everything else that needs training too. I'll quickly give you the technical bit.

Myelin is an insulation material that forms a layer (the myelin sheath) usually around only the axon of a neuron. This gets thicker when the nerve is stimulated. If you send a signal along your neurological track, as an athlete does over and over again, you are re-wiring your brain and creating a thick wire, in effect, for your signal to run down.

George Bartzokis, a professor of neurology at UCLA explained it in 2007.

"What do good athletes do when they train? They send precise impulses along wires that give the signal to myelinate that wire. They end up, after all the training, with a super-duper wire. That's what makes them different from the rest of us."


The science of using that training on footballers is in it's infancy and arguably the first coach to develop a training method specifically to target improvement in the brain's performance was Michel Bruyninckx, the Academy Director at Standard Liège in Belgium in 2012. He has his own football training company. In 2013 he started work with AC Milan to influence the way the club 'brain trains' their youth.

The Belgian national team has players that have been trained in Bruyninckx's concepts and are now playing in top leagues in Europe. They don't have a bad side and should easily make it to the knock out stages at the World Cup. He believes clubs are realising the potential and is not surprised a club that leaves little to chance like AC Milan wish to be at the forefront of progressive training methods.

“I think everybody begins to understand that the football game at the highest level is no longer based on athletic potential and ability but that the brain ability and potential has got an enormous influence. Faster moving and decision making can only be achieved through brain anticipation processes.”

MilanLab is the Italian clubs state of the art scientific research laboratory. Staff member Domenico Gualtieri echoes Bruyninckx’s philosophy.

"Our job is not just to get the fastest most athletic players on the pitch. we also want to give the players the instruments to take care of problems themselves while on the pitch.”

Sir Alex Ferguson was successful in the transfer market and he used to seek intelligent footballers, this approach is aimed at doing precisely that, create more intelligent footballer by speeding up the brain.

Scouts in England have judged a player by the time they are 17 or 18 yet the brain develops until the age of 25. Many players are therefore missed, England international and new Liverpool signing Ricky Lambert who they released as a 15 year-old for instance.

  • In the 2008-09 season 57% of players at Premier League academies were born between September and December.
  • 14 percent had their birthday between May and August.

The significance of that?

It indicates the more physically mature children in any given school year are being selected by Premier League clubs, that's got to be a fault with the system.

It's the same with race horses, they are all given the same age regardless of when they are born so in 2 year-old races there is a disparity in physique giving some horses more chance of winning than others. The smaller horse given time may well turn out to be the better horse in the end.

Incidentally Lionel Messi was born in June and Andrès Iniesta was born in May! Would they have even been picked up in England?

Just as players develop physically and we miss the less developed so the brain develops and a player with a footballing brain like Teddy Sheringham is better than a footballer with merely physicality.

Uefa-A licence coach Kevin McGreskin delivers workshops to professional clubs.

"I think that coaches either forget, or don't even realise, that football is a hugely cognitive sport. 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."

If you do the same thing in the same way you are gong to get the same result, expecting a different result is unrealistic. Spurs need to improve the mental performance of it's players. We simply don't place enough emphasis in assessing the mentality of a player before buying them, if we did we wouldn't have had the season we have just had and we wouldn't keep failing when the going gets tough at the end of each season.

To build concentration you should start with a drill and then continually make them more complex so you work the players brain. When a player can turn off and go through the motions as it were you are no longer providing training but merely providing exercise.

Bruyninckx says:

"Football is an angular game and needs training of perception -- both peripheral sight and split vision. 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."

The key there is angular balls, Spurs have been guilty of keeping the ball using sideways passes which do little to wear out the opposition. If you image a back four tied together by a strand of string and then a bank of four in front of them also tied together by a piece of string.

All they have to do for a sideways pass in trot sideways together but for an angular pass you pulling them around put of a comfortable position, which is when they use more energy, more mental energy, with more decisions to make and will tire earlier in a game.

Tiredness causes a lack of concentration which leads to mistakes and therefore chances for you to create goalscoring opportunities later in the game. Steven Gerrard and the central defenders behind him in the Uruguay game were a classic example.

in 2011 Kevin McGreskin started a project working with the Partick Thistle first team using the 'overload' approach to training building the concentration levels. In 2012/13 they won the Scottish Football League First Division.


"We are not providing kids with the challenges that they need to meet the demands of the modern game. Overload exercises help the player speed up the feet and the thought process."

McGreskin, rightly in my view, argues the decision making of too many players is not quick enough. I have to say that's my personal view of Victor Wanyama, the former Celtic player Southampton paid £12.5 million for. He was linked to us before the Saints overpaid for him and was linked to us again when Pochettino was appointed.

The slow decision making weakness is caused by not scanning the pitch enough when a player doesn't have the ball. Italian Andrea Pirlo is still playing at the top level at 35 and running rings round England's midfield simply by knowing who is where on the pitch all the time.

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Professor Geir Jordet of the Norwegian School of Sport Sciences went as far as to back up the view decision making is improved by player awareness with statistical proof carried out using Sky Sports' PlayerCam function.

Jordet took 55 Premier League midfielders' and examined their head movements. He found that the more these players scanned their surroundings, the more statistically successful they were with their passes.

"The visually most active third of the players completed almost twice as many forward passes as the least active players."

If a player gets caught up in a game he stops scanning and then when he receives the ball he then has to do it, weigh up the options and then make a decision before delivering a pass. If you have already scanned the surrounding area, you already know which passes you can play, thus speeding up the decision making process and giving you more time to play your pass.

McGreskin tells us that:

"Almost 98 percent of the game is played off the ball. Even in a basic passing drill I force the players to work on perception, scanning skills, technique, adjustability, concentration, attention focus and attention bandwidth. It's quite amazing the effect it can have on players."

Michel Bruyninckx remarks about meetings he had with Jose Mourinho, then at Real Madrid who immediately stated incorporating the ideas into his training.

"Mourinho immediately understood what I'm trying to do and he asked a lot of intelligent questions. He also noticed that the organisation of the drills requires a greater team involvement, more concentration, attention, a continuous inciting of perception and that intelligent playing could grow a lot. 

"I was most of all surprised by the fact he could instantly see how several technical details would be in favour of his players and the straight coupling of the contents of several drills to his players' individual characteristics was striking. 

"He was not talking about a general programme but processed directly the new insights to his daily training and coaching. He cares a lot about his players."

Bruyninckx sees the future of the game as very team orientated. It makes sense that if you have a group of young players and can keep them together the team unit should keep improving as each individual improves their decision making.

“It's striking that the future game is most of all based on team performance.

“Team creativity can only be achieved if players have a huge mutual solidarity and they put their individual search for success aside. The player's individual speed has been replaced by a team's high-speed performance.

“Look how at Neymar is struggling to get into the Barca patterns. Give him time and his talent will be even more impressive.”

Neymar scored 15 goals in 41 games for Barcelona while Ronaldo scored 54 in 50 for Real Madrid.

Tottenham can't compete financially in the marketplace but there are areas of the game where we can outstrip out opponents. First we have to realise the importance of mental training and not just hope we stumble upon a group of winners instead of the odd one in a jungle of weaker minded players.



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