The Brain Can Make Your Feet Your Hands: Player Development

I enjoy watching mixed martial arts and the progress the sport has made over the years.  The fighters are much better now compared to when the UFC first started, but I still feel the fighters feet (kicking) are lagging behind the skills of the hands and the grappling.  The reason for this I will get too soon, but there is a neurological explanation to why the kicking skills in mixed martial arts may not be as developed as the hands.  When you watch the UFC, more often than not, the kicking skills revolve around the basic roundhouse kick, front kick and knees.  Sure there are knockouts with the feet but when was the last spectacular kicker in mixed martial arts that was really dominant?  I don’t want to get too deep into this conversation, because UFC fighters do have specific tactics and strategies, but I feel comfortable saying, that the kicking in mixed martial arts is just alright.  When is the last time you saw a jumping spinning hook kick that knocked someone out? Almost never is my answer, that’s kind of my point.  Either these awesome kicking techniques are too fancy to actually work or the fighters level of skill is to low to pull it off?  However, I do remember a man that arguably was the best martial arts kicker of all-modern times, many people have probably never heard of the American called Bill Wallace or “Super Foot Bill Wallace” from 40+ years ago, but Bill could perform kicks that were amazing, nobody even came close to his skill level.  Early in Bill’s career he suffered a right knee injury, forcing him to quit Judo, as he dedicated his efforts on the development of his left leg.  Quickly “Super Foot’s” left leg became a deadly weapon, clocked kicking at over 60 mph, not only were his kicks fast, they also possessed staggering power and pinpoint accuracy.  Bill Wallace went on to a perfect 19-0 full contact fighting record before retiring from the sport.  Of course me being me, I was interested in how and why Bill Wallace was so good with his feet, while so many others were just average.  I decided to do some research into Wallace and ended up finding a couple of interesting things, Bill would literally eat his meals with his left foot, holding a spoon or fork between his toes as he fed himself, Bill would also operate the TV with only his feet, turning the dials to switch channels or to turn the set on or off.  This struck me as very unusual and leads me to my next point, that soccer is very closely related to the skill of kicking in the martial arts.  Why are they related? Neuroscientist Jeffrey Holt, helps explain why soccer and the training of the feet is so difficult, here is an excerpt from his article, “Thinking with Your Feet: How Soccer Rewires Your Brain”, June 10, 2014 – “This one rule takes away eons of evolutionary advantage we humans have developed. Hands are what we do best.  A peek inside the brain of the average human reveals that the hands are vastly over-represented relative to other regions of the body.  This is true for the cortical brain areas devoted to perception of touch and body position and even more so for the cortical areas that control the motor activity of body musculature.  To convince yourself, try this at home: place your hand on a flat surface and lift just your middle finger. Now place your foot on a flat surface and lift just your middle toe. Both hands and feet contain sufficient musculature to accomplish these tasks.  However, most people have difficulty lifting just their middle toe because they lack sufficient neural representation in the brain regions that control the feet.  More than any other sport, soccer requires a brilliance that redefines the cerebral cortex, because the soccer player is limited by one simple rule: no hands!  Yet, since soccer eliminates the use of hands and focuses on the feet, soccer emphasizes another powerful human capacity: the plasticity of the human brain and its ability to learn and be shaped by experience. The feet, the principle instruments of soccer, are represented by a very small region of cortex in the average human brain. Remarkably, this feeble cortical representation is not set in stone; clay would be a better analogy because the brain can be molded by experience. In fact, the ability of the human brain to be remolded and learn from experience is so pervasive in humans that I would argue it is our greatest evolutionary advantage. The brain of a soccer player illustrates this point beautifully as it is reshaped by extensive training and experience. Since the soccer player’s feet are both exquisitely sensitive and remarkably powerful and must be used as tools of the trade, as well as for their usual purpose, the brain regions devoted to the feet undoubtedly expand to allow greater neural representation. It is not difficult to imagine that the brains of Ronaldo, Messi or Neymar, currently some of the world’s greatest soccer players, may be very different from the average human with expanded representation for the feet.  A remolded cerebral cortex in the minds of the best soccer players is a testament to the incredible plasticity of the human brain and its ability to adapt and learn from new experiences.”


Basically, Jeffrey Holt is saying that humans are not naturally meant to be incredibly skillful with their feet, human evolution is hard-wired to favor the use of the hands, but with enough training the human brain can and will adapt, grow in plasticity and eventually learn, allowing things like superior foot skills to develop.  The brain is ultimately what makes skill acquisition possible.  There is no doubt in my mind that high-level soccer players, just like high-level kickboxing champions like Bill Wallace, have changed their brains, and this change is what enables them to be great with their feet.  If you have any doubts that the brain can change, take the example of British taxi cab drivers in London.  These drivers are required to memorize every street in a 6-mile radius inside London, it’s no easy task to say the least.  When doctors did brain scans on veteran British taxi drivers, they found their brains had more grey matter along with an enlarged region of the hippocampus, more specifically the posterior region of the hippocampus that deals with location.  British taxi cab drivers were proven to have physically altered the make-up of their brains as a result of the demands of the job.


Before I get too far into all this, let me finish by connecting the dots.  Bill Wallace become great with his feet by not just training kicking in the martial arts, he became great by re-programming his brain using total immersion, everything Bill did, he used his feet like they were his hands.  We know that we are born pre-programed to use our hands, but we also know how powerful the brain is, and with enough training and total immersion our feet can become our hands.  Have you ever thought of training your players to use their feet as their hands?  Do you think there would be a benefit to this type of total immersion using the feet?  It’s my opinion that there would be!