Adolescence: a time to sculpt the football brain

Guide 12 - 16 17 - 21

Dr Perry Walters explains why adolescence is the perfect period to develop young players’ decision-making and cognitive skills and warns of the dangers of thinking players aged 16 or 17 are the finished product.
When we talk about the elite football player with a great ‘football brain’ we think of the likes of Eden Hazard and Lionel Messi. These players have vision, ‘read’ the game well, anticipate play and are creative, composed and intelligent decision makers. We now know that the networks that are associated with such abilities are some of the last brain networks to mature and still malleable beyond the teenage years.

Scientists used to think that the brain was more or less developed by late childhood and that the adolescent brain was simply an adult brain with less ‘miles on the clock’, less experience. However, we now know that the brain does not mature by getting bigger, rather it matures by rewiring, making more connections and coordination between brain regions (Giedd, 2015). In the last ten years, new brain imaging technology has shown us that the networks in the frontal region that underpin judgement and decision-making, abstract and strategic thinking and the control of emotions and behaviour are still developing well into the mid-twenties.

Scientists believe that this delayed maturation is deliberate and, evolutionary wise, linked to the individual’s need to be able to adapt to their environment during the transition process from child to adult. In this regard, because of the ‘plasticity’ (malleability) of the adolescent brain, the teenage years and early twenties are an optimal time to forge higher order cognitions, such as decision-making, consequential thinking, mentalising (taking others’ perspectives) and cognitive control. In the authors opinion, a ripe time for stamping in football cognitive capabilities.

A Youth Development Phase player brings the ball out and runs forward unopposed.
There’s still time to mould an individual in their twenties as their brain is still developing.

Neuroscience is uncovering why this might be so. The pre-frontal cortex is one of the last regions of the brain to mature and judgement capabilities associated with this brain network are still being sculpted and refined in response to the individual’s environment.

We now know it’s a period of unique sensitivity to learning. The frontal networks in the adolescent brain are going through a process of simultaneously pruning excess connections and strengthening those that are regularly used, resulting in a more efficient, coordinated brain. For frontal capacities, the cement is still wet; the plasticine at its most pliable. This is an opportune time to strengthen pre-frontal judgment networks that contribute toward the ‘elite football brain’.

Are these capacities to be left to chance, to mature on their own or are they to be guided by the coach - moulded, through carefully devised interventions that take into account recent findings from developmental neuroscience?

From a football perspective, it might be an optimal time to help forge attributes associated with a ‘football brain’, including: decision-making, anticipation, reading the game, composure (managing emotions), motivation, creativity and self-awareness.

All of these dispositions are ‘coming online’ during the adolescent period. It’s also a developmental period when good learning dispositions can be nurtured such as developing a growth mindset, persistence, resilience (mental toughness), practice and taking on responsibility (Allpress and Claxton, 2008).

So, football educators need to be aware that the footballer at 16/17 is not the finished product. The cement is still wet in the frontal part of their brain to be moulded. These abilities are not yet crystallised and, with guidance, can be nurtured.

There will be individual differences with some needing more time and understanding than others. If a player is not the best decision maker, finds it difficult to control emotions, not the best reader of the game, then there’s still time to develop those higher cognitive skills through informed coaching instruction.

The best coaches can interpret and adapt this information helping to build a more holistic understanding of player development. It might be that they show a more patient approach with certain players, mindful that these ‘higher cognitive’ capacities are still rewiring and developing.

The latest neuroscience suggests that these judgement and decision-making networks are a ‘work in progress’ until well into the third decade of life and are improvable.

Even the very best teenager footballers in the English game are prone to adolescent-typical behaviours. Ross Barkley, for example, was a teenager at the time of the World Cup, aged nineteen. He was described in the press as ‘too impulsive’, ‘too reckless’, and likely to ‘take risks in the wrong areas of the field’.

This is perhaps an understandable analysis. However, as we have seen, research from the field of cognitive neuroscience suggests that this type of decision-making is normative for teenagers and to be expected during the transition period of adolescence.

Research suggests that teenage decision-making is qualitatively different from that of children and adults and particularly prone to impulsive, reckless and ‘risky’ decision-making in contexts of heightened emotion (such as football matches in the World Cup).

A coach puts his thumb up to a Youth Development Phase player and gives his some advice.
Understand your players’ needs and provide the right instructions to help them develop higher cognitive skills.

What are the implications for football coaches?1. Coaches need a holistic understanding of player development. It’s a period of mental as well as physical change. Coaches need a ‘frontal focus’. Adolescence is a period where the higher order cognitions are naturally at their most amenable to change. The ‘football brain’ is still developing even when the player appears fully mature, up to and including the mid-twenties. Decision-making, creativity, control of emotion, awareness of consequences can all be developed. This might require repeated and different coaching methods. Allowing players periods to ‘experiment’ in non-threatening environments. Patience when players make mistakes. Make the abstract concrete. That is, walk through and revisit information, utilise tools such as video to reinforce ideas as well as the use of imagery.

2. Coaches need to be mindful that there might be an ‘emotional bias’ in decision-making as the frontal networks aren’t sufficiently developed and interconnected to manage the fully established emotional/reward centres. This might be especially the case in aroused contexts or in the presence of peers. As such be prepared for inconsistent and sometimes reckless behaviours.

3. Risk taking and pushing boundaries is normal for this age. In football contexts the emotional climate impacts decision-making and behaviour for the adolescent more than the child or adult. Too much pressure and a fear of making mistakes might impact the adolescent more. The coach can assume the role of the pre-frontal cortex - that is, dampen down the emotional intensity of coaching or match environments. This might be done through emphasising process rather than outcome goals: emphasise a sense of belonging for players where they are valued over and above their performance; dedicate specific ‘experimental periods’ during training where there are only ‘interesting mistakes’ that can be learned from (Claxton, 2008).

4. In the pathway toward independence there is a natural breaking away from family and possibly an anti-authority disposition. It’s a time, from an evolutionary perspective, of increased novelty seeking, exploration and risk-taking, where friendships are very important, as is what others think of you. This has been suggested as emotional drivers to help leave the nest. So, as a coach, be prepared for contesting authority. Research has shown that when adults understand the teen brain, communicate calmly and repeat preferred behaviours (go through consequences of actions) this proves an effective method of interaction (Bostic, 2104). Repeating information is important because the frontal networks are still developing and the pruning of grey matter means processing speed may be slower.

5. Self-regulation is still developing in adolescence. Help self-regulation through goal setting, planning and monitoring. This helps adolescents’ develop their own sense of self-control. It helps them to connect and strengthen their own neural networks around planning and self-monitoring. It’s a period where the connections between frontal and emotional systems are starting to be forged. Helping teenagers help themselves will help scaffold the development of these connections. Also help adolescents understand the motivations of others. Perspective taking is still developing so talk through some important decisions (For example: the coach drops you - it doesn’t necessarily mean they don’t like or rate you. It might be that they have to include other players).

6. Communicate and relate: ‘keep dialogue with your teenager’ (Jensen, 2015). Explain and talk about their decisions. Clubs can emphasis that this is a very important learning period and that the brain is at its most plastic (improvable). Players can be educated on the plasticity of the brain and the fact that abilities - including footballing abilities - are improvable through increased effort and better strategies (Dweck). Also that the adolescent brain is uniquely sensitive to certain risks and impulsive behaviours (Blakemore, 2010). A knowledge of their own brain and psychology might be beneficial for elite players.

Dr Perry Walters PhD, is a visiting research fellow at Bristol University. Perry has worked as an academy coach at Bristol City FC and as a PE teacher. This article was first published in The Boot Room magazine in April 2016.

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