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Footballers are better at predicting opponents' movements, MRI research finds

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By studying brain scans, Brunel University researchers have discovered that highly-skilled footballers are able to activate more areas of their brain than novices when they see an opponent heading towards them, making them better able to anticipate their moves. The research, published in the Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, found that experienced players seem to have developed a ‘checking’ system that suppresses the urge to react instinctively, making them less likely to fall for deceptive feints.

The research, which looks to discover the neural basis for cognitive superiority, involved 39 participants ranging from semi-professional footballers to novices. The participants lay in an MRI scanner whilst watching clips of a junior international-level player dribbling a ball toward them. On some occasions the oncoming player performed a deceptive manoeuvre and participants had to decide in which direction to move, while their brain activity was monitored. They were then grouped according to how well they performed. The skilled footballers were more attuned to the actions and deceptive movements of opponents than their less-skilled counterparts.

The results also showed evidence of stronger activation of the Mirror Neuron System (MNS) when predicting an opponent’s actions. The MNS is active not only when performing an action within our personal repertoire, but also when viewing that same action performed by others. Hence, there was clear evidence of ‘recognition’ of the opponents’ movements in the more skilled performers.

It is hoped that this research will lead to greater insight into how professional sports people come to develop their abilities over time and will eventually be used to help improve and speed up training techniques.
Brunel University's Dr Daniel Bishop said: “Our neuroimaging data clearly shows greater activation of motor and related structures in the brains of expert footballers, compared to novices, when taking part in a football-related anticipation task. We believe that this greater level of neural activity is something that can be developed through high quality training, so the next step will be to look at how the brain can be trained over time to anticipate the moves of opponents.
“Particularly following on from the Olympics, with more people being encouraged to take up sport, we hope that our findings can be used to refine and speed up training techniques to nurture the potential in budding young sports stars.”

Notes to editors

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Research details: Bishop, Daniel T; Wright, Michael J; Jackson, Robin C; and Abernethy, Bruce (2013). "Neural Bases for Anticipation Skill in Soccer: An fMRI Study", Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 35(1), in press.