The Head Case
Standard Liège's Michel Bruyninckx leads the way in developing footballers' mental capacity
Football, Johan Cruyff said, is a game you play with your brain. Michel Bruyninckx takes that claim more seriously than most. Terms like pedagogy, didactical principles, cognitive readiness and differential learning trip off the Belgian coach's tongue as easily as catenaccio as he explains his "brain-centred learning" approach to training young players. "When you make use of difficult words people feel resentment," said the Standard Liège academy director, who is arguably the first football coach to develop a training method specifically to target improvement in the brain's performance. "But when you see the training you can see it works."
Bruyninckx is talking in his office in the €18million state-of-the-art Academie Robert Louis-Dreyfus, which is widely regarded as one of the best in Europe. Located in the Saint-Jean forest just up the road from the club's Stade de Sclessin, the academy has a futuristic feel, particularly when set aganst the fading industry of Liège. It is an appropriate setting for a coach who is as comfortable talking about neuroscience as he is about football tactics.
The idea behind his approach is simple — to make players think as quickly with their brains as they kick the ball with their feet. "We need to develop an engram — a neurological track — in the brain," said Bruyninckx, who aims for his players to be in a state of "conscious" learning at all times when they are training and playing. It is about creating new connections in the brain's circuitry and hard-wiring them in. Key to this is the part played by myelin, an insulating material that forms a layer — the myelin sheath — usually around only the axon of a neuron and which gets thicker when the nerve is repeatedly stimulated. "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," George Bartzokis, a professor of neurology at UCLA, told Daniel Coyle of the New York Times in 2007.
The attraction of developing more intelligent players would seem obvious for any self-respecting football coach, but the high drop-out rate — "In England we've judged players by the time they are 17 or 18," said the Southampton scout David Webb — suggests the world of youth development in Britain could do with a little more blue sky thinking. And why are they being rejected at such an early age when the brain is not fully developed until the age of 25?
But it's not just the high wastage rate. In the 2008-09 season 57% of players at Premier League academies were born between September and December, while 14% had their birthday between May and August. That suggests that the more physically mature children in any given school year are being selected by clubs, which in turn means an English Lionel Messi (born June) or Andrès Iniesta (born May) is unlikely to be turning up any time soon. "We always thought that sporting activities were mechanical activities, but we know that there are interventions from the brain," said Bruyninckx, warming to his theme. "Think of what Real Madrid experienced during el Clásico when they were beaten 5-0 by Barcelona last season. This requires high concentration and creativeness, which is only possible if you bring the brain into a conscious process of performing. A new way of training — actually synaptogenesis — creating new brain connections."
Bruyninckx is not the only coach advocating more intelligent and innovative approaches to training. "I think that coaches either forget, or don't even realise, that football is a hugely cognitive sport," said the Uefa-A licence coach Kevin McGreskin. "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."
The worry for McGreskin, who delivers workshops to professional clubs, is that for too long England has been coaching players in "pretty much the same way, but expecting the end product to be different and thinking somehow talent will magically appear."
The drills Bruyninckx uses — "in five years I don't think I've used the same drills three times" — start off simply but grow in complexity to foster concentration and touch. This idea of "overload" ensures that the players are more actively involved during an exercise even when they are not on the ball. The pre-eminence of the team over the individual is key for Bruyninckx — "we have to do it together" is one of his mantras — and as he shows a video of players performing various training routines he jokes that what they are is doing is football's equivalent of social media networking."Football is an angular game and needs training of perception — both peripheral sight and split vision," said Bruyninckx. "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 idea of overload is as key for McGreskin as it is for Bruyninckx. While the Belgian might get his players to speak in four different languages when they are doing strength and conditioning work, the Scot has devised one exercise in which players have to throw a tennis ball and call out colours while they are passing a football in sequence. "We are not providing kids with the challenges that they need to meet the demands of the modern game," said McGreskin, who has recently started a project working with the Partick Thistle first team. "Overload exercises help the player speed up the feet and the thought process."
McGreskin argues the decision making of too many players is not quick enough, a weakness that is caused by their inability to scan the pitch when they are without the ball. It is a view supported by research carried out by Professor Geir Jordet of the Norwegian School of Sport Sciences. Using Sky Sports' PlayerCam function, Jordet examined 55 Premier League midfielders' head movements and found that the more these players scanned their surroundings, the statistically more 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," said Jordet.
McGreskin added, "Don't forget almost 98% 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."
Bruyninckx is the first to admit that he is a bit of an outsider — "when Darwin was talking about evolution people thought he was crazy" — but this summer the Belgian got a foot firmly inside the football establishment's door when he was appointed head of Standard's youth academy. His growing reputation has led to a couple of meetings with Real Madrid, including one with José Mourinho, an interesting development given the way the Madrid club have lagged behind Barça in the development of young players. "Mourinho immediately understood what I'm trying to do and he asked a lot of intelligent questions," said Bruyninckx. "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."
Before his appointment at Liège, Bruyninckx was coaching youngsters between the age of 12 and 19 who were affiliated to first and second-division Belgian clubs such as Mechelen, Westerlo, Anderlecht, Sint-Truiden, OHL Leuven, Vise and KVK Tienen. The youngsters, both boys and girls, had been selected by the Belgian football federation and studied at Redingenhof secondary school near Brussels. Now Bruyninckx is at an institution which has a very different raison d'être — to produce football players who will help Standard win the Jupiler League before they are — more than likely — snapped up by other European clubs.
With five grass pitches as well as an 800-seater stadium, an artificial pitch, a covered training area and a luxury hotel with 30 rooms, the Liège academy, which opened in 2007, is much in demand. Since arriving at Liège, Bruyninckx has received approaches from hundreds of young players from all over the world wanting to come and train with the Belgian club. For weekend matches it is not unusual for 40 agents to be watching games.
Bruyninckx's appointment at Liège followed the arrival of the club's new coach José Riga, another advocate of brain training, who used it when he was coach of the second division club CS Vise. "It's such an intelligent way to learn," said Riga of his academy director's approach. "The exercises are always based on geometrical figures such as rectangles or diamonds. They start off simply but increase in complexity. You have to be running at the same time and looking to see your partners' rhythm. You need to think about putting the ball at a certain angle and you have to think about rhythm, synchronisation and movement. It's not repetition without reflection."
Bruyninckx emphasises that each drill makes use of "tracing" which forces players to reposition themselves as they would in a game. "My organisation is always referring to the reality of a game," he said. He insists that the work he does as a coach incorporates many other aspects — kinesiology, psychology, biomechanics — while his players also train with the rhythmic ball — a small net with room for a football that is then held by the hand to ensure that the ball always stays close to a player — to maximise the number of touches.
Geoff Noonan, who is Fulham academy co-ordinator for the Under-7 to Under-11 age groups, decided to order 150 of the balls for his players after meeting Bruyninckx at a conference in May. "The rhythmic ball helps to open the hips, and is good for passes across your body, side-on volleys as well as helping a player's weaker foot," said Noonan. "It also allows kids to practise at home and helps them to balance both the left and right sides. The idea of home practice is really useful — we've lost that culture of kids playing impromptu games on their own and the rhythmic ball provides a way of replacing that."
Barcelona players' high technical level and non-stop movement provide the benchmark for Bruyninckx, but Noonan argues that Barça's recent success as well as Spain's Euro 2008 and 2010 World Cup triumphs are linked to the number of games Spanish youngsters play. "Having visited Spain the way the game is learned over there is not by drills, because that doesn't teach game sense," said Noonan. "In Spain they learn through a games-based approach to help develop and understand time and space. They might play 80-120 games a year, with lots of matches at tournaments and festivals. Playing so many games helps young players to see images in similar situations over and over again. What we need to do is give the kids a good game sense — understanding time and space — and develop good technique. We need lots of games and lots of different types of games — 2 v 2, 3 v 3, 7 v 6 etc — with lots of different tactics."
Noonan has brought in the consultant and author Mick Critchell, who in the past has coached Arsenal's Theo Walcott and Southampton's Adam Lallana, and has carried out research in the way the brain works. Critchell is an advocate of this approach based on small-sided games — in essence a way of replicating street football — and provides a scientific explanation to support his argument. During a two-hour exploration of the brain's workings and its development from birth until it has fully formed, encompassing an in-depth look at its reptilian, limbic, neo-cortex and corpus callosum structures, Critchell explains that while the left side provides logical and rational skills, the right side is the resource for more emotional and intuitive skills.
He argues that the game in England has been taught through the left brain, which is too slow for a fast-moving game like football, and that players develop best when the right and left brain are working together: the technique and the decision making. "It is essential to activate the right brain and analogous vision by continually putting players in unpredictable situations," said Critchell, who walked out on an in-service evening when he saw the Cruyff turn broken down into 13 different parts. "We therefore need to teach small-sided games which are appropriate for the age and ability of each child."
The 68-year-old Critchell references a piece of research by John Moores University that found that more than 50% of time in English academies is spent on fitness training or unopposed practices and less than 20% on playing small-sided games. "Not only are we developing poor technical players, said Critchell, "we are also creating poor decision makers. We need players who have the ability to play in the future — a vision to know what to do before receiving the ball. This won't change unless we get rid of the drills."
A former secondary-school teacher, Critchell talks of the importance of the brain's place and grid cells — "space-mapping neurons linked to a memory-forming region in the brain called the hippocampus" — which allow players, indeed all humans, to map space. "In roughly 10 seconds, Paul Scholes will see a hundred alternatives and then make choices that will draw on his place and grid cells," said Critchell. The grid cells "act as though the playing surface has got triangles marked out all over it," he added. That makes the playing of small-sided games like 3 v 3 so important "as it allows players to understand that shape better".
Listening to Critchell's advice, Fulham have also introduced a movement programme for all their age groups. He points out that many African and South American children grow up in societies in which dance is a major part of culture. In dances like the samba and salsa, the brain has to coordinate eight or nine different body parts at the same time, which is great for balance, rhythm and body control. Noonan heard Bruyninckx speak at a conference organised by Bacons College academy, a secondary school in Docklands, the day before Barcelona's victory over Manchester United in the Champions League final in May. Over the last few years the former USSR international Sergei Baltacha has established a thriving football academy at Bacons College — a number of his players also train with London Premier League clubs — and has developed a close relationship with Bruyninckx.
The Belgian insists that his players be as committed to their education — "If I can affect your concentration and attention during my training you will take it to school" — as they are to their football development, a belief shared by Baltacha. "Keeping the athlete grounded will stop us from creating ‘Tin Sporting Gods' who in their late teens or early twenties fail to reach their potential in and out of sport," said Tom Eisenhuth, who works closely with Baltacha at Bacons College. "This model is the lifeblood of Sergei's philosophy."
Bruyninckx estimates 25% of the 100 or so players that he coached before joining Standard have turned professional or are in the women's national squads. The former Standard Liège midfielder Steven Defour, now at Porto, and the PSV Eindhoven attacking midfielder Dries Mertens are the two most high-profile players with whom the Belgian coach has worked. Another player Bruyninckx coached is the Belgium midfielder Faris Haroun, who joined Middlesbrough in the summer from Germinal Beerschot, scoring on his debut in the 3-1 win over Birmingham. On a trip to Belgium to meet Bruyninckx earlier this year, Haroun joined his mentor for lunch and happily sat through a two-hour Powerpoint presentation that included a hefty dollop of neuroscience. Haroun's concentrated demeanour was noticeable.
Perhaps what really differentiates Bruyninckx from other coaches is that he is not only interested in creating better football players, but also wants to create better human beings so that if they do not make the grade professionally they will be capable of going on to have fulfilling lives. "It's all about having communication with your athletes and finding out how your players are organised," said Bruyninckx. "It is important not to impose your ideas immediately. If a child has a recently divorced family, that child is not emotionally available to learn something. We all see present-day problems and that sometimes the social behaviour of players is not correct. We have to do it together."
Talking to a number of interviewees who have had experience of youth development both in the UK and abroad, what is striking is the sense that European clubs have a more rigorous and analytical approach to coaching young players. Villarreal have 76 coaches working in their academy, all of whom have physical education and child development qualifications, while up to the age of 12 their players would be deployed in at least three different positions during a game. "In Europe there is a real understanding of a child's emotional development and where the kids have come from," said Webb, who is currently studying for an MSc in Sports Psychology while scouting for Southampton, and has been a frequent visitor to Bayer Leverkusen's academy. "I noticed there is more human and cultural understanding with foreign coaches. And there is a real understanding of the type of coaching kids need at certain ages. It's a very systematic and analytical approach to development."
Over the last few years the exploration of how talent is best developed has seen a proliferation of books on the subject, notably Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers, Geoff Colvin's Talent is Overrated, Matthew Syed's Bounce, John Ratey's and Eric Hagerman's Spark and Daniel Coyle's The Talent Code. As Critchell notes, "Everybody is searching for the Holy Grail." Given the millions that are at stake in developing players the search is only likely to intensify. Bruyninckx's theories may seem strange now, but as that quest goes on they could become standard practice.