Molecular Football Physiology – Part 2
THE NEUROSCIENCE BEHIND FOOTBALL PLAYERS
Neuroscience is one of the most interesting fields of sports science, or football science that I can recall. Our brain dictates what we can do, so theoretically speaking, doesn’t everything start from there?
In part one of these series of molecular football physiology articles, I mentioned that some of our ability is genetic and that our genes are largely inherited from our parents.
As we also know, we can maximise our potential with the effort we put into our training and how we manage that training, whilst also fuelling our body with the right nutrition. Combined, all of these will make an elite footballer and most likely already have done so with the talent we were so lucky to see in the decades of the game that we love.
Part 1 – Neurological Construct and Interference
But our neural system, including our neuromuscular system can also be our worst enemy. We respond naturally to our surroundings, or external stimuli such as the trajectory of the ball through saccadic eye movements which is essentially the ability to constantly focus on a singular object.
Elite footballers are able to process multiple stimuli all at once and on top of that able to scan the surroundings to find the best decision to make within that moment of chaos. It’s more of a calm within the storm analogically. But what happens if we remove that calm?
Emotions can get the better of us. Look at John Terry in the Champion’s League final. Remember Steven Gerrard’s slip that arguably cost Liverpool the Premier League title? They are examples of “choking”. A “choke” is a moment where we lose control of the motor systems in our brain due to interference from our emotions.
In other words, we temporarily lose control of our ability to control ourselves. Physiologically speaking, we would start to tense up, start shaking with anticipation against the demands of the moment to perform well, such as taking a penalty.
The nervous system dictates all of this and is split up into two parts.
The central nervous system – This is our spinal cord and our brain.
The peripheral nervous system – These are the networks of nerves outside of the spinal cord and brain. Think of it as the pathways that go from our central nervous system to our muscles.
When we respond to stressful situations such as taking a penalty, external information would flow through our muscles from our senses, such as our ears for hearing crowd noise and eyes upon seeing that crowd and the goalkeeper, the boundary to success.
This information would then go to the thalamus of our brain. We would produce a “fight or flight” response to that situation. Our senses would see an increase in adrenaline which in turn produces a higher level of blood pressure and an increase in our heart rate, which creates that interference and our ability to control ourselves.
“Fight or flight” is basically how we react to that situation. We either embrace it and make it work for ourselves and we are still able to focus and remain calm within the storm. Or we let it get the better of us.
Sometimes the latter will prevail because would fail to develop coping mechanisms within our consciousness. Only when we develop this when will we become able to overcome moments of stress.
Part 2 – Neurons: The Delivery of Information
Neurons are cells. Their specific purpose within the human body is to pass on information to other cells that could be neurons or muscle cells or other cells completely.
To pass on information, neurons produce neurotransmitters. Neurons also have something called dendrites which sense these neurotransmitters with the nucleus of the cell deciding whether or not to accept that information.
We can argue that in football, footballers have the ability to convey and understand the information around them efficiently enough to maintain that control.
They see the sensory information around them and the neurons will pass that information around the body. What happens afterwards is a series of complex mechanisms unique to the footballer as to how they cope with that information, how quickly that information is passed on throughout the body, and how physiologically we ultimately respond to the neurons’ information it has provided us with.
This is again what separates the good from the very good. The Total Football Philosophy from Rinus Michels and Johan Cruyff placed a significant value in creating players with quick mental processing techniques as opposed to players with sufficient levels of acceleration.
Quicker decision makers are quicker than physically fast players because they are able to respond to situations and process external stimuli quickly, thus refining whatever initial decision they had made in a game and adjust it accordingly.
This is what made the likes of Xavi, Paul Scholes, Andres Iniesta, Andrea Pirlo, George Best and N’Golo Kante such good midfielders. They processed information around them quickly and the physical capacity simply followed. Neurons passed on information quickly in the body.
To conclude, neuroscience in football can be considered an untapped subject. It is very hard to get conclusive data on players from the discipline on psychology purely because of the subjective nature of how interpret things around us. We have the RPE scale and heart rate monitors and potentially blood pressure monitors.
These can tell us something, but at the deeper level at the molecular level, only meticulous laboratory experiments can really give us that information. The take home message is how we as practitioners can interpret data from heart rate monitors and RPE scales and what meaningful data we can take from it. Otherwise, they are just numbers without a significant cause.