In the wake of Liverpool FC’s Carabao Cup victory, earlier this month manager Jurgen Klopp chose to highlight the benefit of an unusual training method.
Having won a penalty shootout 11-10, the manager praised the work the club was doing with German neuroscience company neuro11 in getting players in the right headspace for spot kicks.
“All of the players were excited about it,” he said, “it’s about bringing specific players before a set-piece into the right mindset by doing the stuff you do on the pitch. Everything gets measured, they are neuroscientists and it’s incredibly interesting and incredibly important to us – a very interesting new chapter.”
While Liverpool might have benefited from analyzing their players neurologically, over in Portugal elite women’s youth player Sara Cordeiro was embarking on something even more revolutionary.
SC Mirandela football club player scored two free-kicks in as many matches having practiced them the morning of the game at a desk with wires strapped to her head.
Using a video-game-like simulation, controlled by her brain alone, Cordeiro was able to tell her avatar to whip the ball in the top corner without moving, let alone breaking a sweat.
It’s all done using a system called i-BrainTech, developed by Israeli neuroscientist Konstantin Sonkin, which trains the brain rather than the body. The elite Portuguese youth soccer player is one of several taking part in a FIFA-sponsored research study examining the effect of fatigue on player decision-making.
I got an exclusive chat with the players taking part in this groundbreaking research to find out whether the future of soccer is all neurological.
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“It was a new experience,” Cordeiro told me, “I felt that concentration level, it was very different. I did the test on the morning of the game and then in the afternoon, I scored from a free-kick like it was on the [iBrainTech] game. The [next week] I did it on Friday night and Saturday scored another goal from a free-kick that also was like it was on the game.”
The SC Mirandela player explained that practicing using iBrainTech required a different type of focus to grabbing a bag of balls and hammering free-kick after free-kick over a wall. You had to pay attention to the small details. Having entered this headspace the night before or the morning of the game she found herself concentrating differently when she placed the ball down in the heat of the game.
“On the iBrainTech I always had to be concentrated, to be focused on the power and the accuracy. If I lose any concentration, I miss the goal,” she continued, ”In the game, I felt like it was the same, I had to be concentrating on the power and the accuracy to score the goal, and I did.”
Sara Cordeiro and her team-mate Margarida Sá were not always so convinced of the benefits of the technology. When technical director Sílvio Carvalho of AF Braganca, the club SC Mirandela is affiliated with, showed up and told them they needed to put this weird gel on their head before having wires strapped to them, they were naturally skeptical.
“The researchers used a chemical in our hair and I didn’t like it. I was strange.” Margarida Sá said,” when we were asked to do it I was not happy. But I thought that it would be a new experience and it would be very interesting.”
Sá struggled at first to adapt to using the technology, which focuses on set-pieces and drills involving long-passing, but over time she found she improved, both at using the iBrainTech system, but also in her actual soccer.
“First of all it was very strange,” she said, “I didn’t score many goals, but over the six weeks [of the project, I improved myself in the [iBrainTech] game and in my football.”
She found that it enabled her to have a better sense of spatial awareness on the pitch. When deciding whether to shoot or pass, she felt able to make better choices.
Sílvio Carvalho explained that this is exactly what the research study was trying to explore.
“At this stage, we trying to prove the [impact this type of practice can have on] decision making,” he said, “they are not running, but they are focusing on how to hit the ball and how to focus on the target. In training a lot of time they don’t do it like that they see the square and shoot it. [iBrainTech] makes them think before they pass, cross or shoot the ball and although they are not running or doing physical exercises, they are doing mental exercise.”
Evidence that this type of training has a direct impact on a player’s performance is still being gathered. Sara Cordeiro and Margarida Sá may have felt like using the program improved their ability to score free-kicks or pass to a teammate at a vital time, but it doesn’t mean that it did.
This is an early study, part of several looking to gather the data required to assess whether training the brain does improve real-world performance. But top clubs already considering using the technology in the future. i-BrainTech has reportedly held talks with Barcelona and Paris Saint Germain, along with many other clubs further down the pyramid.
Sara Cordeiro is convinced that everyone should be using these methods to improve.
“Every player should use it,” she added, “the higher the league the greater the difficulty. If everybody uses it, the focus levels are going to be higher and the results are going to be better.
Liverpool is certainly convinced that exploring the power of the brain can win trophies.