Soccer Brain - the making of the beautiful game
Updated: Jul 22, 2021
Reaching flow state by melding brain and body
This article is grounded in soccer training and the relationship between the high-level soccer athlete and their brain. We explore how the soccer athlete trains to reach a flow state. Soccer is known as the “Beautiful Game.” We show how reaching flow state provides beauty’s building blocks.
We also provide related examples, from science and securities trading. Whether soccer or some other pursuit, we all have the ability to reach a training-induced flow state.
Please note: This article will make references to our brain’s various functional centers. It is not necessary to have a neuroscience understanding to appreciate this article. It will be helpful to review our Brain Model for a quick reminder of the brain’s key functional centers and their relationships. I promise, a small investment of your time!
"To the right mind (hemisphere), no time exists other than the present moment, and each moment is vibrant with sensation. Life or death occurs in the present moment. The experience of joy happens in the present moment. Our perception and experience of connection with something that is greater than ourselves occurs in the present moment. To our right mind, the moment of now is timeless and abundant. "
- Jill Bolte Taylor, My Stroke of Insight
This is an apt description of how high-level soccer athletes interact with the game.
The speed of the game is such that the slower analytical left hemisphere (LH) must be bypassed to be successful. That is, the training must be ingrained in the athlete’s mental processes. (like the limbic memory, sensory input and imagery, and non-language cognitive responses) The ingrained training enables the faster intuitive right hemisphere (RH) to be hardwired as instinct. The RH operates via external stimulus and pattern recognition interaction with the limbic memory. Because the RH has no language, the response is a “gut” feeling. The athlete learns to trust this feeling and allows their body to respond as intuition. The athlete will likely not recall consciously “thinking” their response. It just happens....and they are pleased. In our Brain Model, the “The high emotion tag / low language” case best describes the mental pathway of the highly trained soccer athlete, when they reach a flow state.
In the context of the very fast-moving, high-paced soccer game, there is literally no time to "think," in the context of the slower left hemisphere cognition.
Interestingly, training starts almost exclusively in the left hemisphere, with coaches showing students how to perform. Training starts slowly to allow the left brain to 1) fully understand the movements and 2) imprint a mental map for soccer skills. In our Brain Model, the “The low emotion tag / high language” case best describes the mental pathway of the initial training. Skills training processing is almost exclusively routed through the left hemisphere.
However, at some point and during game situations, the left hemisphere gets left behind. Real-time, game decision making reliance moves almost exclusively to the right hemisphere. The RH enables intuitive athlete responses to the fast demands of game situations. Also, the entire high-level game doesn’t exclusively process in the right hemisphere, though it does at the times of greatest speed and stress. This is when the athlete is fully engaged in the present flow moment.
The best athletes step to the “right,” with slower cognition “left” behind. This state is ephemeral and reaching this “flow state” is not automatic.
Jamie Wheal, in his book Stealing Fire, defines flow state as “ ‘embodied cognition,’ melding mind and body together as one through a certain exercise. It is inspired by the scientific finding that physical movement directly affects how a person thinks and feels.”
In Stealing Fire, Wheal links flow to the emotions associated with six different neurotransmitters: dopamine, serotonin, oxytocin, norepinephrine, anandamide, and endorphins. (1) Per our brain model, think of this as the neurotransmitter mix required to get the neurotransmitter tag (NT Tag) in place prior to reaching the RH. The proper mix will enable one to reach a flow state. This neurotransmitter mix is the “high emotion tag” required to activate direct access to the right hemisphere.
Ultimately, it is the soccer coaches’ job to create a flow state-enabled training environment. As a game-time outcome, this training environment facilitates the athletes to 1) derive the correct mix of neurotransmitters 2) focus cognitive functions to an RH dominant mental pathway, and 3) reach a flow state, both individually and collectively. To facilitate flow state attainment, some soccer coaches provide athletes a significant amount of information and strive to get each athlete out of their comfort zone. By doing this as training, it facilitates the athlete to transition to the RH enabled duality of “no thinking thinking” when it comes to game time execution. Christopher Newport University head coach, Justin Chezem is at the helm of a successful college soccer program. His coaching discipline includes testing and integrating new techniques to drive athlete and team success. Coach Chezem mentions:
“Part of our training incorporates ‘differential learning.’ The point is to expand our athlete’s soccer intuition tool box to prepare them for a variety of unique game time situations.”
This is also consistent with the System 1 (RH) and System 2 (LH) construct presented by Daniel Kahneman in his book, Thinking, Fast and Slow. Utilizing Kahneman’s construct, the following is a related options trading example, from N. N. Taleb's book, Fooled by Randomness. The example references System 1 and System 2. As an analogy, think of System 1 is to System 2 as RH is to LH. This demonstrates how options trading-related training imbeds the slower LH / System 2 derived cognition into the fast, language free domain of the RH / System 1 options trading execution.
“I have always believed that professional option traders and market makers by dint of practicing their probabilistic game build an innate probabilistic machine that is far more developed than the rest of the population even that of probabilists. I found a confirmation of that as researchers in the heuristics and biases tradition believe that System 1 can be impacted by experience and integrate elements from System 2. For instance, when you learn to play chess, you use System 2. After a while things become intuitive and you are able to gauge the relative strength of an opponent by glancing at the board.”
My son, Daniel, is a college soccer player. He is currently a senior at Christopher Newport University. He is their starting Center Back.
In my conversations with him, he speaks of losing time. Where the game, while slowing before him, ends quicker than his internal clock would expect. He also understands his body is often a vessel, where his actions are not from conscious cognition, but from some mysterious intuition. His reactions just happen. Like how he touches the ball, plays it into space, hits a long diagonal pass, or tackles a forward. In game situations, many of his decisions are generated from his intuitive subconsciousness. He can only wait until after the game to evaluate his performance as his real time performance is beyond his conscious understanding. In many ways, their pregame rituals (like getting pumped up, increasing focus, connecting with teammates) are preparation for reaching a collective flow state.
Daniel, like many soccer players, has an ongoing relationship with injury. He sees injury as the biggest threat to reaching flow state. He knows injury can end his ability to play at a high level and reach a flow state. This is a demon he mostly ignores, but knows exists. He recently sprained his ankle in practice, an ankle he has injured before. He felt a surge of pain, not so much physical pain but the mental pain of uncertainty. This uncertainty is a reminder signal. That is, signaling a potential end of his career and his ability to reach the flow state. It would seem the flow state is the goal, it is nirvana.
In our article, Changing Our Mind, I discuss the notion of “Educated Intuition.” Dr. Slaoui, leader of the U.S. Government’s Project Warp speed to develop a COVID-19 vaccine, uses educated intuition as a way to describe how highly trained people handle new but related situations.
“To some degree, those with higher education as it relates to the topic, will be more immediately open to adapt to a quickly changing environment. In the interview, Dr. Slaoui called ’educated intuition.’ They have the developed language to understand the problem. Those with lower education on a topic may be slower to adapt as a higher proportion of understanding is found in lower language brain centers.”
The point being, that educated intuition relates to the flow state in terms of the level of training. Those with high levels of training, in many different contexts, will credibly allow their low language and fast intuition to drive decision making.
In his book Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World, David Epstein mentions:
”Knowledge increasingly needs not merely to be durable, but also flexible - both sticky and capable of broad application.”
I interpret “sticky” as an LH construct, the analytical mind’s ability to recall and structure narrow facts. “Broad application” is related to the RH. That is, the intuitive mind’s ability to utilize highly evolved educated intuition to make new connections. This also relates to Coach Chezem’s use of differential learning to drive successful game time soccer decisions from unique situations.
For Daniel, while his soccer career will come to an end at some point, he now understands the power of the flow state. He will be motivated to find different paths to reach a similar flow state in other parts of his life. Conclusion
This article was grounded in soccer training and the relationship between the high-level soccer athlete and their brain. We explored the definition of flow state, the primary neurological functions that impact flow state, and how the soccer athlete trains to reach the flow state. We also provide other examples, from science and securities trading. Soccer is known as the “Beautiful Game.” Reaching flow state provides beauty’s building blocks. Finally, whether soccer or some other pursuit, we all have the opportunity to reach a training-induced flow state through out our lives.
(1) Most of the flow state neurotransmitter chemicals are also associated with happy emotion. This may be why reaching a flow state is associated with happiness or contentment.