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The basics of the brain and why it should matter to your football club


“The human brain is the most complex mass of protoplasm on earth – perhaps even in our galaxy.”

Marian Diamond


Marian Cleeves Diamond 1 was one of the founders of modern neuroscience. She was one of the few scientists who studied Albert Einstein’s brain and co-discovered neuroplasticity (the principle that brain cells, brain synapses and sometimes whole areas of the brain can change and adapt anatomically according to utility). In other words, plasticity is the ability of the brain to change through the formation or strengthening of connections between neurons in the brain.

UC Berkeley colleague George Brooks, a professor of integrative biology said, “Dr. Diamond showed anatomically, for the first time, what we now call plasticity of the brain. In doing so she shattered the old paradigm of understanding the brain as a static and unchangeable entity that simply degenerated as we age.” 2

Marian Diamond believed the brain should be highly regarded for good reason. We are each born with around 86 billion neurons3. Each neuron has the capacity to maintain up to another 10,000 connections per neuron. These numbers sound like a lot, but it needs to be put in context for it to be appreciated.

One way to better understand large numbers is to quantify 86 billion in terms of seconds. 1 million seconds takes us to 12 days ago. 1 billion seconds takes us to 1980. 86 billion seconds ago takes us back 2727 years ago. That’s 705 B.C! The human brain is stunning in its complexity and our capacity to learn and change must never be underestimated.

What are thoughts?

A neuron is made up of a cell body, dendrites, and an axon. Dendrites bring information into the cell body; information travels through the axon and exits the cell through axon terminals.7

Each time you receive new information, a neural pathway is formed in the brain4. Neuroplasticity is a life-changing finding because in its most basic application it is empowering to every human. Let me explain further: neural pathways store information. The connections that are made between neurons are thoughts. Well, this is an incredibly simplified version of the reality of the process of a thought. Given the complexity of the billions of neurons and trillions of connections that are formed in your brain, you can imagine that tracing a thought from beginning to end is a tall order.

However, it is best and most profitable for you to know this: “A thought is a real physical thing that occupies mental real estate in the brain and the mind,” as Dr. Caroline Leaf explains.5

The more you think about and use new information that you have received from your senses, the more stable the neural pathway becomes. The less you think about and use the information, the more unstable the pathway becomes and the more likely for the connection to be pruned6. The statement, “use it or lose it” is very much related to the brain7.

The information you receive may be negative or positive but the process of making the pathway more stable or less stable remains the same. If you practice something repeatedly, much like practicing a skill in football, the connections will stabalise. If you repeatedly think something negative about yourself, the connections will stabalise. This process of building thoughts has a great impact on how we respond physically and mentally as athletes.

For instance, we know that practicing a task appears to improve the brain’s efficiency. For example, when a person first learns to pass the ball to their teammate, he or she uses a large area of the motor section of their brain. But professional football players who play in the Premier League use a much smaller section of their motor cortex for kicking the ball. How is this made possible? Repetition, by stimulating the same region of their body (feet) for the same action (passing), strengthens the related synapses (connections). Consequently, fewer neurons are needed to perform the same task.7

Vincent Walsh, a neuroscientist at University College London who works with professional athletes, takes this further when he says, “No one ever says they lost a match because they forgot how to run or kick a ball. The reasons people lose are mental, not physical or technical.”

Vincent Walsh made an incredibly important statement. The mind is powerful, and often, it is where the battle takes place. What we repeatedly tell ourselves is strengthening and reinforcing synapses (connections) and that turns into belief systems, habits and lifestyles.

The importance of knowing the basics

How a football player uses his mind determines his success. Every football player, and every human should understand more about the brain and how to optimally use it for life.

For more insight into the anatomy and systems of our brain, I’ve included a link here from Brain Facts, which takes you to a well-presented interactive model to demonstrate the position of each brain region and what role it plays in our life.

The topics “brain” and “neuro” will become more and more popular over the next years. To understand, contextualise and better apply the information released, it will be worth knowing the basic processes and anatomy of the brain. Yet, not every child is exposed to this information, hence why IQ Football incorporates it into our training sessions. For the parents who would like to know more about the theory behind what our coaches are teaching in their sessions, IQ Football now offers a 3-hour course on the Basics of the Brain and its application to your life. To find out more and book a spot, contact



Brain, Football, Soccer

Sean Szabo

Recognised as a leading brain-centred football coach in Gauteng, Sean Szabo is an English FA qualified coach who has worked internationally assisting player’s motor and technical football skills, as well as their cognitive development on and off the field. IQ Football was founded in 2015 by Sean as an amalgamation of his passion for football coaching, mentoring, and brain-centred research.