Does any of this sound familiar?
During training, a player or two seem to be wandering around in a fog. They seem clueless as to what’s going on around them. The ball sneaks up on them, surprising them to the point where you are not sure if that was their first touch or a one-timed shot.
Or during a game, you notice you’ve used the word “focus” a record number of times, and the more you say it, the more it sounds like you are begging and pleading. The mistakes your players are making are baffling. You’re sure they know better, and you’re at a loss to understand what in the world they are doing.
What’s going on?
The problem could be fatigue, and not the type of fatigue you think. A study at the University of Technology at Sydney found that “mental fatigue impaired the accuracy and speed of soccer-specific decision-making.”
A September 2016 article in Sports Illustrated addressed the issue: “While physical fatigue has long been considered a factor in performance, diminishing an athlete’s capacity to react, run faster and jump higher, researchers are beginning to understand that a tired brain can negatively affect performance as much as a tired muscle.”
Brad Evans, a defender for the Seattle Sounders of Major League Soccer, was quoted in the article. “I’d always been told by coaches that when the legs are too tired, the mind will take over,” he said. “But later on, I realized that it doesn’t work that way. Mistakes happen when you are mentally and physically fatigued—like missing a tackle I would usually make.”
Everything Feels More Difficult
The article points to a study by Dr. Samuele Marcora on the effects of mental fatigue on soccer performance. Marcora’s study discovered that “mentally fatigued soccer players couldn’t run as far or kick a ball as skillfully as their mentally-fresh counterparts.”
During the study, the researchers also found that the mentally fatigued players perceived the effort they expended in the session felt higher than the control group. Their effort wasn’t physically harder, it just felt harder.
It’s become increasingly popular and helpful for teams to use RPEs (Rating of Perceived Exertion) as a measurement of fatigue. (See how DRIVN measures RPEs). When a couple of athletes perceive a training session or game to be more taxing than the rest of the team, mental fatigue may be a factor.
There are, of course, all kinds of things that can lead to mental fatigue. Every coach knows about finals week, and they have witnessed the stress involved in those “major projects” (which, by the way, stress out the parents as much as the kids, and can create a stressful, hostile home environment). Lack of sleep is an obvious factor, but sleep quality is often overlooked.
Other less-obvious fatigue-inducing factors include too much time spent on computers, playing video games or watching TV before a game or training session. Really, any activity that overly taxes the brain has the potential to bring on mental fatigue.
Andrea Bosio, a sports scientist working with Serie A soccer teams Sassuolo and Juventus, believes that much like training the heart, lungs and muscles with physical conditioning, the brain needs to be trained. They call it brain training -- or more specifically, Brain Endurance Training.
How can we train the brain?
One simple way is to make players think during practice. During technical training, coaches can do more than ask players to perform specific skills. They can ask them why each skill is important and make them think of an answer. Ask them to demonstrate how it can be used in real-life game situations.
During pattern-passing exercises, don’t allow them to mindlessly perform each task – pass here, run there. Ask them how a particular pattern translates to game situations. They can also add “one more thing” to the end of every skill, something as simple as “clap twice,” and explain that in soccer, you are never really finished. There is always something else to do, something else to think about. When you give them a water break, have them count the number of steps they take to get to their water and tell them to find a shorter path on the way back.
Bosio is a proponent of small-sided games as a form of brain endurance training. Like everything else about small-sided games, players are playing the big game with reduced numbers in a smaller space. It’s a simplified version of a complex environment, which trains the brain.
Train the brain, rest the brain, challenge the brain. Coaches can’t really do any of that unless they are paying attention and getting to know the players on their team.