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Although the human body continues to surpass our expectations of what is possible, there is surely going to come a time when we reach our physical limits. Even if we take a multitude of performance enhancing drugs, there is still only so much power that our muscles can produce, so much oxygen that our cells can hold, and so much blood that our hearts can pump to our extremities.
It's because of these limits that the future of sports development is not seen to be in the physical realm; instead, it's thought that aspects of the brain can improved and mental clarity refined. The mental movement in sports isn't really new of course, positive psychology has been used for a number of years as a way to increase athlete confidence and, in turn, their overall performance. The thing that is changing is our understanding of how the brain works and how it can be manipulated to improve cognitive functions, which could have massive implications for how future soccer stars are scouted and developed.
A recent study conducted in Sweden was set up to compare the mental executive functions of its soccer players by using a standardised test. Participants from the country's top league took part, along with those from lower tiers of the pro game and right into the amateur ranks. The research took two years to complete and found that those competing at the very top outscored those from the leagues below. At first glance, these results may be a bit shocking, but when you think about the pace at which the game is played, the coordination involved, and the amount of split second decisions that must be made on top of ball trajectory calculations and the fact that the game is played in a 360 degree radius, it actually makes perfect sense. The best players generally have to have superior brain functions to perform.
“Top-tier players think more clearly, quickly and flexibly than non-players, and there is a correlation between cognitive ability and the number of goals and assists a soccer player scores, Swedish researchers found,”—Wired
Although it was long thought that these kinds of functions were hereditary, books such as The Rise of Superman and The Brain That Changes Itself have shown that the human mind is far more flexible than experts had ever realised. Not only does the neuro experience known as flow help us feel our best and perform our best (thanks to the release of a host of addictive, focus-driven hormones), but with training and mental exercises, we can also exercise and grow specific parts our brain.
There is a lot on conjecture as to the best way to link these things with a sport such as soccer, but VR seems to be at the forefront of research into the area. Companies such as Neuroscout in the USA are using VR and computer apps to help teams scout for new talent, while research into the VR app produced by Neurotracker has found that it increases on-pitch performance in soccer players. Working on the visual cortex, the Neuro tracker app helps improve peripheral vision and increases a player's ability to predict where an object might go next based on visual clues. Researchers who worked with the program used three different groups: one did no extra training at all, one watched 3D videos of the 2014 World Cup, while the last used the Neurotracker. After several weeks, they found that only the Neurotracker group had measurable improvements in their on-pitch performance in areas such as passing accuracy.
Although it is an exciting prospect and could have massive implications on the future of soccer development in a world where street soccer is dead, there is still no way around the fact that to make it to the very top, you need passion and a willingness to work hard.