The Sports Brain: Why the Cognitive Development of Athletes is the Future of Sports Coaching

Below is an introduction to my new book “The Sports Brain” – Soccer Coaches specifically should find the book extremely useful.  The book provides a very unique approach to developing athletes that will open up your coaching mind!Image  The book is available at


The Modern Age of Sports


Sports are like everything else in life, always changing and evolving. In order to ensure progress we must continually search for ways to get better. There’s no doubt that overall athletic performance has improved over the years. The athlete’s body today is a fine-tuned machine that has benefited from modern fitness training, expert nutrition and state of the art rehabilitation services. The modern athlete is faster, stronger and can go longer than ever before. Current technology allows trainers and coaches to monitor the athletes’ exact workload, distance covered, number of sprints, heart rate, recovery time, average speed and much more during training or games. Heart rate monitors with built in GPS technology can literally track a persons every move, speed and effort level. Some professional and college coaches have access to software that is so sophisticated it can break game film down into almost any statistic or pattern you could imagine! Most professional teams have a staff of people, whose sole role is to analyze film, reviewing and breaking it for the Head Coach.

With all of these modern improvements in the areas of fitness tactics and technology, my question is how much room for athletic improvement is there really? Have we maxed out our potential? Let’s take a look at the physical performance of two World Class sprinters, who are over 70 years apart, Jesse Owens in the 1936 Olympics vs Usain Bolt now. Usain Bolt would have beaten Jesse Owens by 14 steps, which is a significant difference in the 100m. However, if Jesse Owens had a starting block and ran on a rubber track the difference would have been just a single step or less. Overall, the modern athlete has progressed physically, but this progress in some cases once adjusted for shifts in technology and other external variables is smaller than you might think. This all depends on the sport of course. The 300+ pound lineman in the NFL today who runs a 4.7 second 40-yard sprint and bench presses 400 plus pounds is certainly far more advanced than a lineman from 1936. I really don’t know how much faster or bigger a 300+ pound athlete can get at this point! Still, after considering the physical component of the game, let’s look at the strategies and tactics used in modern sport. With all the video analysis, sophisticated game software programs and dedicated coaching staff, are we getting closer to our maximum potential in the area of sports strategy and tactics? I personally can’t see an “ultimate” game plan or “unbeatable” tactic being created! There will always be great tactical coaches but in the end both talent and tactics are needed to win. And yet still, if you are lucky enough to have the talent and tactics there is yet another step, players must understand, absorb and execute the tactical game plan for it to be effective. The advancement in tactics (strategy) and the physical components in sports are quite notable today but there still an area we have not developed even close to its potential. So, what is the one area then that might hold huge potential for increased performance in individual and team sports performance? I would argue that the area of “cognitive sports development” or “game intelligence” is the answer. Training the brain in a cognitive development sports specific environment might just be the biggest breakthrough in improving sports performance ever.



What’s Lacking in Players & Missing from Coaching?


As a soccer coach, I work with high-level players on a daily basis. While a few of the players have their weaknesses, the majority are pretty good athletes both physically and technically. However, over the years I’ve observed that regardless of physical and technical ability, most athletes lack the speed of thought, decision-making and problem solving ability that are required to excel in the game. The lack of these cognitive skills is a major stumbling block, hindering player performance.

As a coach, I prefer that my players are thinking two passes ahead, assessing the field, processing information quickly and constantly being active and engaged in the game. My players and I often discuss at length what is needed in order to increase their overall game intelligence and effectiveness on the field.

Cognitive training without a doubt improves a player’s ability to collect information on the field, process the information, formulate a strategy or solution, execute an appropriate action based upon the information and then evaluate the outcome of the action (was it successful or not). There is no question that technical ability is also an important factor in this process if performance is going to increase. Players must be able to perform with their bodies just as quickly as their brains in order to be effective.

Developing the player’s brain, body and technique simultaneously is critical to elite performance in sports. Yet, because cognitive development is such a new area in sports training, most coaches want to know does it work? For me the question isn’t whether or not it works but rather why you aren’t implementing cognitive sports training with your team/teams right now! That’s how strongly I believe in sports cognitive development. I am not talking about ten ways to psychologically get your players to perform better or some sort of performance enhancing mind advice. I am suggesting totally restructuring your entire training regimen or practice curriculum around developing players’ brain to maximize their decision making ability. For many coaches this idea may seem shocking. I would say to you, if you don’t open your mind up to change you will be left behind. In order to be a leader in your sport you must always be evolving.



The Science of Cognitive Development


Before getting into sports specific cognitive development, it is important to grasp the concept of cognitive development and the human brain. The definition of cognition dates back to the 15th century meaning “thinking and awareness”. Cognition is essentially the “processing of information”. This includes things like calculating, reasoning, problem solving and decision-making. The processes of cognition are handled in the brain. Fields like neuropsychology and cognitive science study these processes in detail. When I mention developing a player’s cognitive sports ability, I literally mean developing the player’s ability to make better and quicker decisions, while increasing their ability to problem solve on the field. The result will be seen as a better overall more effective performance on the field. Players will also experience the benefits of cognitive training in their ability to concentrate, learn, focus and problem solve in other areas outside of sports as well. They will become better all-around learners across the board, which parents and teachers will be more than pleased to hear.


One of the exciting recent findings in the area of cognitive development has been the connection found in transferring intelligence. To fully understand this we need to look at the make-up of intelligence. Intelligence is defined in two separate ways, crystallized intelligence and fluid intelligence. Crystallized intelligence is the ability to use information, skills and knowledge to score well on standardized test. This type of knowledge represents your lifetime of cerebral knowledge. Games like Jeopardy or Trivial Pursuit test a person’s crystallized intelligence. Crystallized intelligence will not help players on the field in terms of decision-making and problem solving. However, the second type of intelligence called “Fluid Intelligence” will help players in their sports developmental process. Fluid intelligence is the ability to think logically, learn new skills and then use the knowledge gained as a platform to solve nonrelated new problems or learn new skills. The fact that fluid intelligence can be transferred and used in other related and unrelated tasks is a major break though. The other positive attribute of fluid intelligence is that it can be trained and increased. The more you train your fluid intelligence the more progress and cognitive development increases. Increasing fluid intelligence can make people smarter in all areas of their lives. When humans are actively training their brain and learning they are creating new synaptic connections. These connections build on each other, creating increased neural activity and more connections. As this happens, learning takes place. The term neural plasticity refers to the number of connections between the neurons in the brain. An increase in plasticity will enhance a person’s ability to learn and retain knowledge. It is my feeling that players who increase their fluid intelligence levels will be better prepared learners. Players exposed to cognitive sports training increase their performance both on an off the field.


Recent findings concerning “Deliberate Practice” also reveal that learning requires focus, concentration, commitment, emotional control and patience. Anders Ericsson, a Professor of Psychology at Florida State University is a leading expert in Deliberate Practice. Anders has found the becoming highly skilled in a field has more to do with how one practices compared to just the number of repetitions a person performs. Deliberate practice should not be easy or take little mental effort it requires hard work, concentration and focus. Highly skilled people tend to break down the skills being learned into smaller chunks while getting feedback from a master coach. Deliberate practice also focuses on continuously training the learned skill on more challenging levels. Working from simple to complex. There is little question that “Deliberate Practice” requires challenging the brain constantly forcing cognitive development to take place. The more training and various challenges the brain experiences the more cognitive development will be increased. Not surprisingly, it was also found that people who are and/or feel motivated, are far more apt to learn and retain information.