Can Soccer Players Improve by Making Their Feet Their Hands?

Below is an excerpt from Neurologist Jeffrey Holt, which may shed some light into the future of soccer player development.  (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…..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. 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.”

The fact that humans have the ability to transform their brains, building new neural networks to become better at specific tasks is amazing. I heard a simple story about Neymar the other day, that reiterates this point. Neymar was asked to rotate his feet in circular motions, while hooked up to an MRI. The MRI showed largely increased neural activity when Neymar moved his feet, compared to the average person. What that means is, overtime Neymar has developed more neural pathways, basically changing the connection from his brain to his feet, through consistent soccer training. Think about how amazing that simple fact is, through training, the body and brain reprogram itself, hardwiring it for success, in the specific area it is trained in.

There are other examples outside of sport, that show how the brain is physically altered over time, in order to become successful at performing specific tasks. Taxi Cab drivers in England have been shown to have enlarged areas in the brain, that deal with memory and location. As the novice Taxi Driver studies for their taxi test, it requires them to memorize every street in London, the normal study period is around two years for complete memorization of 2,000+ streets. At the end of the two year study period, MRI’s show significant physical growth in the area of the brain that is coordinated with location and memorization. That example is powerful proof that the brain physically changes with the training it undertakes.

So why does all that stuff matter for soccer players? Simple, just like constraint based training methods that allow players to develop unique technical skill sets, there is another important piece to the puzzle, the brain piece, the thinking piece, the hard wiring of the brain and body together as one unit. Certain training methods will change the brain and the body, from strategy to physical capabilities, to technical proficiency, to tactical solutions and more. When coaches look at player development training methods, they should start thinking in terms of the effect of specific training over time, on the brain and body. There is no single exercise or training that can make the difference, it is more about creating environments for technical, tactical, physical and brain growth (game intelligence) to occur over time and repeated training.

The next part to the developmental puzzle, may be the off-the field supplemental training. In regards to increasing neural activity and motor control with the feet, would a specialized program using your feet be beneficial for soccer players? I would say, ”yes“,  without a doubt it would. Look at skilled guitar players, who spend endless hours working on scales and finger dexterity, what if soccer players did similar types of exercises with the feet? What effect would this have on long term soccer ability?  A while back, I remember hearing a story about a famous Karate Champion named Bill “Super Foot” Wallace, Bill would do everything with his feet, from eating cereal holding his spoon with his foot, to turning the TV dial with his toes and much more. Bill intuitively knew that using his feet for almost everything he did, would give him greater ability with his Karate kicking. This was a long-term lifestyle that focused on using his feet for the daily tasks that would normally be done with the hands. Bill trained his brain and body together almost all the time, which in my opinion resulted in the development of a superior Karate skill set. Another example of this would be the famous basketball player “Pistol Pete” Maravich. Pistol Pete never went anywhere without his basketball, even at the movie theatre he would be bouncing the ball, as he sat in his seat. This non-stop association with ball allowed him to develop his special skills, becoming one of the greatest most skillful basketball players of his time.

Supplemental off the field ways to become a better soccer player! Stay tuned into my blog because I have some ideas for you coming soon!

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1 Comment

  1. Do you think this specialized program would require them to be on their feet, like they are when they play soccer? Or could they build those neural networks while seated?

    I’m thinking of the hours that kids spend sitting each week. Whether it’s on the bus, in class, watching TV, playing video games, etc – if they could rewire connections in their brain for their feet while sitting idle that could be neat.

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