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Comment: Coaching With The Brain In Mind

Thu 9th Feb 2017 | Football Club Management

Tony Faulkner discusses how neuroscience is revealing how the brain operates in a high-performance culture.

As sporting organisations around the globe constantly strive for a competitive advantage the skill set and performance of their coaches and managers has never been more important. Understanding the true drivers of human social behaviour is becoming ever more urgent in a world of abundance and consistent change.

The field of neuroscience (the study of people’s brains) has been applied to various disciplines in business like neuro-marketing (how do people’s brains respond to advertising and other marketing messages) and is now crossing over into elite environments such as football - but why is it relevant?

Neuroscience is finding that the brain is a social organ which is shaped by our social interactions. This is presenting challenges to coaches and managers who are working with players across differing age bands, cultures and societies as first and foremost the brain experiences the workplace as a social system.

Understanding how the brain significantly drives performance will distinguish leadership, management and coaching capability in the years ahead. The brain’s fundamental organisation principle is to maximise reward and minimise threat - if the brain is in a threat state it is both mentally taxing and deadly to the productivity of the player.

As is currently a topic of interest, decision-making in football, players require the brains internal resources available to them, which is not the case when they are in a threat state.

So how can neuroscience practically help those driving performance in their players? There is a commonly held belief that “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks”. This has scientifically been proven to be wrong. The brain is neuroplastic, meaning it is constantly changing its physical properties allowing for new connections to form that can create new behaviours. With this understanding and awareness that the brain is driven through social interaction, having neuroscience as a framework can greatly increase the effectiveness of existing interventions whilst developing totally new methods of enhancing performance.

The Brain As A Performance System

The profession of coaching, managing and leading people has sometimes found itself creating an environment that may hinder brain function and therefore performance. Although we have our own personalities a ‘healthy’ brain will function in mostly the same way, once you understand your brain you have the power to choose how it functions.

The Demon Within...!

Think of the player who does not control his emotions - how do they act? Is this helpful? The brain has an emotional centre which activates automatically creating an extremely powerful feeling and thought process and often this is a negative reaction. Keeping it simple, the blood and oxygen rushes to this part of the brain strengthening this emotion and driving behaviours, yet with training you can learn to direct the flow of blood to other parts of the brain that allow for you to control your thinking

But What Do We Do?

Generally we try to suppress the emotion whether this is within ourselves or our players.....STOP, let’s not do that anymore instead acknowledge the emotion and by doing this we activate our brains to take control.

Who Is You Director?

We have a part of the brain known as the prefrontal cortex (PFC) as this physiologically matures this area of the brain plays a major role in thinking, reflection, analysing and decision-making. Often the emotional brain will over rule the PFC, (just think of the player who is stepping up to take a penalty, the coach who is face to face with the official arguing over a decision) yet it doesn't have to as long as you can control the internal resources to the brain. How useful does this then become to the player taking the penalty? He is far more likely to be able to manage his state of mind and therefore execute the skill, and yes training emotional states can be achieved through the ever increasing understanding neuroscience is providing.

Practical Interventions: How To Aid Concentration

Understanding how the brain drives our behaviours and aids our performance allows us to create exercises and drills on the pitch. In the ever busy schedule of today’s training programmes integrating neuroscience into our training practices a ‘less is more approach’ and enables coaches to efficiently aid learning, whilst maximising contact time with players.

We all understand how important maintaining concentration is. Many successes and mistakes happen due to the ability of the player to concentrate, yet with this acceptance is it known how to develop concentration. Experience shows telling someone to concentrate harder, or more as is often the case in sports coaching, is relatively in-affective without having the understanding how the brain activates this state.

There is a part of the brain that primarily (but not solely) aids concentration and this can be learnt and developed through certain cognitive exercises. These exercises can then be developed within the football environment thus creating new behaviours within the brain that enhance performance.

If you don't train and develop a behaviour ‘telling’ someone who does not have the brain’s internal resources will not develop this skill. Interestingly for those working with children and adolescents other approaches may be required as the part of the brain that aids concentration is the last part to physiologically mature. Understanding this allows for more informed decision making towards such a player from a coach.

Managers & Coaches: Collaborating And Influencing Your Players

In the ever-demanding profession of improving performance and driving a winning culture possessing the skills to influence and collaborate has never been more important. If you are a leader every action you take and decision you make supports either the reward state of the brain or the threat state of the brain. Short-term performance may be enhanced by creating a threat state yet creating a winning culture that drives sustainable success must find its direction in developing a reward response in the brain.

Have You Got Your SCARF On?

The SCARF model summarises social interactions along with the reward and threat response. This model can be applied in any situation where coaches, managers and players interact with the primary purpose of enhancing performance. The model provides a means of bringing conscious awareness to all those potentially fraught interactions. It helps alert you to people’s core concerns and shows you how to collaborate your words and actions to better affect.


The SCARF model involves five domains of human social experience:

Status – The relative importance to others

Certainty – Being able to predict the future

Autonomy – Provides a sense of personal control over events

Relatedness – Is a sense of safety with others, friend or foe

Fairness – The perception of fair exchanges between people


These five domains activate either the primary reward or primary threat circuitry of the brain.

Ask yourself this question: when do you feel you perform at your best, when you have Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness or Fairness or a mixture of all in the psychological contract between you and your boss?

Think of the player who does not have his SCARF on and how this can affect performance and relationships. Understanding these drivers can help players, teams and organisations to function more affectively reducing conflicts that occur so easily amongst people and increasing the amount of time people spend in the toward state, a state synonymous with good performance.

As with any understanding it is not enough just to understand. The art of applying such understanding in elite environments such as football requires you to understand yourself first which then allows you to apply your understanding with your players, without this we could all do it, and as we know this is not the case.

Understanding the domains in the SCARF model whilst designing your personal approach to applying these will provide the difference between affective coaches and managers and those who fail to enhance performance in others

Tony Faulkner: Co-founder of The Masters in Sporting Directorship, consults in professional sport with over fifteen years experience at the highest levels of professional football in the UK as a player, physio, performance director and now in performance neuroscience. A holder of degrees in Physiotherapy, Performance Coaching, Psychology, and the Neuroscience of behaviours, Tony’s primary focus encompasses the role of performance psychology in improving an individual’s development and performance. 

Tony is currently undertaking a PhD project looking into how neuroscience is driving our understanding in creating winning environments.


Posted by: Aaron Gourley 

If you have any football business related news stories you’d like to share then please contact us – agourley@fcbusiness.co.uk

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