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FourFourTwo: Neuroathletics Changes the Map of Football

Thanos Sarris, the editor in chief of Greece’s biggest sports page gazzetta.gr and FourFourTwo Greece, which is part of the British cult football magazine FourFourTwo, has published a fantastic and very detailed article about neuroathletics in elite sports. Read about our views concerning elite football and why football clubs should foremost invest in high quality human resources to build up a great coaching and backroom staff. Read which role innovators like Spielverlagerung or Focus on Performance will play in the future and why headhunting trainer talents, game analysts and performance and movement experts will become the next thrilling transfer market.

Here the English version of the original article by Thanos Sarris:

In which way can your brain improve your football skills? Martin Weddeman talks at Greek FourFourTwo about Focus on Performance and the revolution of Neuroathletics in football.

Pic 1: Serge Gnabry is doing neuroathletic drills with his coach Lars Lienhard in Bremen (copyright: Focus On Performance)

Some of the secrets of the German National Team that won the World Cup in 2014 was hidding in the sports science department. In the labs of those guys that took care of all the small details that many teams refused to notice, but for the footballers themselves had a very important role in performance and in injury prevention. Lars Lienhard, the co-owner of Focus on Performance along with Martin Weddeman, was the guy that the players tried their best to be with them.

Weddeman is letting us know more about their company: “We are a German-based training and performance consulting company which I have founded together with my partner Lars Lienhard in 2010. We are working at the interface between applied neuro sciences and athletic training and train world-class athletes from various sports. During the last years we have also developed from a company that only offers training to top-athletes to a well-respected performance consulting company which consults football clubs, federations, companies and health institutions regarding all topics of applied performance neurology. We consider ourselves as neuro pioniers in elite sports and our work is all about movement and how the brain and the nervous system controlls movement”.

Neuroathletics and the secret weapons of the World Cup

There are indeed a lot of professional athletes that fully trust Focus on Performance. Among others Arsenal skipper Per Mertesacker has been working with Lars Lienhard and Focus On Performance for years. Marco Reus asked for their help while he was playing in Borussia Monchengladbach. Agents, staff member’s from well respected clubs very often ask for their opinion. They also have clients from other sports, such as cyclist Leopold Konig. A very good example of their work is Serge Gnabry. His career was in stalemate, but this year he is one of the most exceptional players of Bundesliga, leaving to Joackim Low no other choice than calling him for the National Team. His new era in Werder Bremen started at the same time with his drills in Neuroathletics. As someone can notice, the two sports scientists have great history in their country. “First of all I have to say my partner Lars Lienhard was the one who was with the German national team. I am the man in the background who is running this company. The reason why Lars was part of the team behind the team upfront and during the Worl Cup 2014 in Brazil were foremost the wish of the players. Furthermore we had fantastic support from former Co-Trainer Hansi Flick who really liked our work. It‘s important to know that this development has also a longer history. Since 2012 we have worked with several German national players as their private coaches. Especially Arsenal skipper Per Mertesacker played a key role in this whole process. Per had the foresight and the courage to talk to his national coaches and to manager Oliver Bierhoff to give his coach Lars Lienhard and our ‚neuro-approach‘ a chance. After a presentation at DFB headquarter they decided to take Lars with them to South Tyrol and let the players decide how to go on. After feeling the effects of the neuro-drills to their performance and their fitness most of the players were thrilled and wanted Lars and neuroathletics to go with them to Brazil as their secret weapon. So neuroathletics became a little part of the whole and the other athletic trainers, pyhsiotherapists and the medical staff realized their was something new and really powerful on the market which they have to watch. The rest is history and the story is going to be continued”, says Weddeman at the Greek FFT.

 

Pic 2: Handball superstar Dominik Klein is doing neuroathletic drills with Lars Lienhard in Kiel during his ACL rehabilitation (copyright: Focus On Performance)

Their method is called Neuroathletics. “We have to primarily focus on what the brain does. It controls everything that happens in the body“, they state. The methods that are derived from neuroscience and trying to improve the cognitive performance gain more and more supporters the last decade. We asked Martin Weddeman to explain what exactly neuroathletics is. “Neuroathletics improves the way an athlete moves and trains by focusing on and improving the connection between the brain and the body. Our conclusion is that the best athletes in the world are the best movers in their sports. Neuroathletics prevents movement induced injuries, determines peak performance and builds the foundation of any training goal no matter if it’s speed, vision, balance, strength, endurance, mobility, technical soundness, tactical behaviour or even mental performance. Gross simplified we use an IT-analogy to describe the effects of neuroathletics: The best athletes are those with the best movement software in the brain and these athletes receive the clearest signal input from their body’s periphery and their big input systems (visual, vestibular, proprioceptive and interoceptive). To create injury-free peak performance our brain needs a daily movement software update. Therefore we use the effects of neuroplasticity. In short – the better and clearer the signal input to the brain, the better the sportspecific performance output with a lower risk to get injured. On the pitch we combine neuroathletics with footballspecific training work to keep the player focused and motivated. The athletes have to realize in their first session with us that our kind of training makes them a better football player and less prone to injury”.

From the German National Team to Steph Curry!

Οf course, it’s not only football that matters. “Until 2014 the term neuroathletics was not very well known in Germany, Europe and also in the United Staates. But after going public with our story and communicating more and more world-class athletes from various sports who are working with us the public awareness has risen tremendously. At the moment we are in the middle of a huge change process which was initiated at the beginning of the 2000s by our friend and partner Dr. Eric Cobb (USA). More and more top athletes from all kind of sports consider the brain and the nervous system as the most important parts for injury prevention, movement and performance enhancement. There are rumors in the US that the basketball superstars Steph Curry and LeBron James are working secretly with neuro-based performance training to improve their skills which is great and accelerates the paradigm shift in high performance training worldwide. We truly believe in the future won’t be ‚old-school‘ athletic coaches anymore – they will be replaced by movement specialists. We need holistic concepts and great education for the next generation of coaches. Neurathletics is not just one of these new trends we see every once in a while in the fitness sector. It is a completely different foundation, it’s the foundation of movement itself”.

In 2014 Gnabry lost the entire season due to a serious knee injury. According to Weddemann’s collegue Lars Lienhard, the simplistic rehabilation methods are not enough. “Classical reha-approaches will most likely meet knee aches with therapeutic tissue treatment and measures for knee strengthening and stabilization in order to rebuild motoric and functional basic patterns. But do we thereby really embrace the problem in its entirety? Do we really know what’s behind the knee ache? Do we really know why the ACL is torn during a quick movement without opponent pressure? Do we really know what the results from the MRI scans signify, and whether our exercises are actually sufficient and our approaches are actually expedient? Why is the musculature hardened? Why is the ligament torn in this specific movement? All these problems are output-results and have to be considered as such.

 

 

Pic 3: Serge Gnbary is using a bone conduction headphone for doing his drills with Lars Lienhard (copyright: Focus On Performance)

Behind all output occurrences are decisions, which the brain has made on the basis of the data situation in order to protect us. All measures, which solely concentrate on output, neglect the actually crucial aspects. Opposite to the classical output-oriented approaches, which we find almost exclusively in sports, therapy and medicine, in the future the focus should be set on more complete, neurocentered approaches. An enhancement of the incoming signal quality and an individual improvement of the integration and interpretation of these signals (information) in the respective “old” and “new” cerebral areas should be foregrounded to thereby improve the output. The unilateral focus on output can and must not be considered detached from the “conditions” that have created it. We have to rethink the current approaches. As long as we do not integrate a transparent screening of the most important brain cerebrals into sports scientific, therapeutic or medicinal studies, all of the results have to be considered with great reserve. Why something is effective or not (output) can only be understood satisfactorily from a broader perspective, which includes neuronal principles. We have to rethink our approach and stop to invariably correct deficient output via output itself!”.

Improving the ‘software’

But how a footballer can become better with such drills, in terms of training? “A footballer will maximize his performance when he maximizes his quality of information input from his most important systems (visual, vestibular, proprioceptive). We can increase an athlete‘s performance technically, athletically, tactically and mentally enormously after checking his brain function and adressing deficient areas with optimized input and specific neuro-drills. Generally it’s a very individual process and there aren’t any one-fits-all solutions or excercises possible. You have to test every athlete individually and design for him sportspecific neuroathletic routines. One example could be how we make a football talent two-footed. When you have a player with a weak left foot it’s in most cases not the left foot itself which prevents shooting well. It’s often the right leg which could not stabilise (reflexivly) when the talent is trying to shoot with his left foot. The stabilization of the right leg is reflexive-driven, so we train with neuro-drills the reflexive right leg stabilization and improve this way the shooting technique with the left foot. A further drill which we often use in this process is an eye exercise: the player has to see the ball during the impact when he strikes it. He has to see the spot where his foot hits the ball very clearly and he should have in best case while hitting the ball a long and stable spine. The targeting of the goal occurs upfront and is stored in the brain so the only task which is important is to make sure that the athlete sees the ball during the impact clearly. This clear input from the visual, vestibular and proprioceptive systems (reflexive stabilization right leg, seeing the ball clearly, having a long spine during the impact etc.) will lead to a better performance output and will improve the shooting technique with the weak foot. It’s important to know that it’s not the weak foot itself which makes the problem, so a coach would loose a lot of time while correcting deficient output via output itself”.

 

Pic 4: Shot put superstar David Storl, coach Lars Lienhard and Bundesliga shooting star Serge Gnabry at the Olympic Village in Rio (copyright: Focus On Performance)

A lot of big clubs, like Liverpool and Arsenal, are suffering from injury crises and the approach to the injuries might be at the core of the problem. “We are not entitled to public assessment or even criticism from afar, as long we have no information on past injuries and the respective status quo before and after the athlete’s injury and after a detailed testing. However, the generally high injury susceptibility of several athletes in the absolute prime segment is very peculiar. To us, this rather seems to be a general problem of the symptomatic approach to injuries. Potentially this does not help in finding the cause for an injury, specifically for motion-induced injuries, free from any external influences. When tissue has healed, the cause for the injury is often still not eliminated, namely the activity patterns in the brain and the thus resulting compensation patterns found within the body. With perennial injuries, there are always underlying neuronal control problems. One can only speak of a successful rehabilitation process, once the ‘software’, which was behind the injury, has been corrected as well. Some athletes were unbelievably unlucky, suffering constantly from violence-induced injuries, such as fractures through brutal fouls. But in the case of motion-induced injuries, when something just tears, one cannot always speak of misfortune. To prevent these movement induced injuries you have to screen the whole squad at the beginning of the season neurologically and develop based on these assessments individual neuro routines for each player to improve his movement quality and movement software in the brain”, explains Martin Weddeman.

The transfers of the future

In conclusion, we asked Weddemann about his expectations of the future, since there are still a a lot of old school managers and coaches that refuse to modernize. “It’s a very complex and mulitfactorial topic so I want to answer detailed. During the last few decades, football clubs have become huge companies. Some are worth several billion dollars. Nowadays lots of money is in the game and therefore the whole football world is in a change process. Slowly but surely some innovative owners and decision makers take over and removing the ‚old school managers and coaches‘ with the so called right pedigree but often with a lack of foresight. You can observe these development in young and dynamic clubs like Leipzig, Hoffenheim, Salzburg and in clubs who have traditionally an outstanding youth academy like Barca, Bilbao or Ajax. The new and forward thinking managers are realizing more and more that fantastic innovations are on the market – our part and the part of our network is to make them aware what is really possible and which huge potential for injury prevention, talent development, game analysis and performance enhancement is already excisting. In my opinion football clubs should foremost invest in high quality human resources to build up a great coaching, backroom, medical and academy staff consisting of young and hungry talents who want to develop themselves and the club. In future headhunting trainer talents, analysts and performance experts will become the next thrilling transfer market – who will get the best experts for their academy and first team?! All this needs forsight, patience and confidence from the management side – quality definitely matters.

As a result of that the club owner has to install an open-minded general manager and a visionary performance director with great leadership qualities and support them to the maximum extend. The perfect example for a manager with foresight and leadership qualities is the former Okland A’s manager Billy Beane who said something very important: „Ultimately, my goal was always to be the dumbest guy in the room, because if I were then I would have incredibly capable staff!“A very important task of the general manager is bridging the academy and the 1st team. Therefore the 1st team headcoach has to be open-minded, most have a clear football philosophy and has to be foremost a great leader and communicator. He needs a highly qualified backroom staff with great co-trainers, movement experts with neuroathletics background, periodization experts and great game analysts which always have to be up to date like the guys from SPIELVERLAGERUNG for example. The main task of this expert team should be to keep the key players healthy and fit and to develop the top talents to the next level. With every injury free season a player and especially a talent improves enourmesly”.

Article by Thanos Sarris for FourFourTwo by Gazzetta.gr (published 4th April 2017)