Many players have pre-match rituals, but rather than superstition, Norwegian wonderkid Andreas Schjelderup’s pre-match routine is based on science.
The 19-year-old Benfica forward, currently on loan at his former club Nordsjaelland, spends five minutes before every match training his brain.
He uses a system called Be Your Best to train key cognitive functions for soccer such as scanning and decision making.
Scanning, constantly looking around the pitch and analyzing the positions of your teammates and opponents, is something the best players in the world are exceptional at, but it can be rather hard to train on the pitch.
Be Your Best CEO Andreas Olsen says that for central midfielders to improve their scanning through training, “you need to be in the center of attention so that you can train this skill in the best way,” but “not even the pro players will have the resources and time to train this effectively” on the training pitch. He says that’s where Be Your Best comes in.
The system uses a VR headset to create what Olsen calls “the most realistic VR experience in the VR simulation of a football game as I know it today in the world.” Players use this to improve their scanning and decision making. It allows players to have a high cognitive training load without any physical load. Users can either practice with AI-driven players or follow the best players in the world around the pitch in copies of Champions League and Premier League matches and try to make the same decisions.
Olsen says the service is targeted at ambitious players who want to get better or who are unable to train on the pitch due to injury but want to stay motivated.
As well as being used by Bundesliga clubs like Borussia Dortmund and soccer stars like Arsenal’s Martin Odegaard, Be Your Best was used by ten of the German youth players who won the Under-17 European Championships this year.
FC Copenhagen has been working with Be Your Best to further develop the technology. The club has been using the system to test its youth players on scanning, pattern recognition, working memory and decision making. The club’s head of research, Jes Buster Madsen says that these tests aren’t used as screening tools, but rather to better understand the players and help them develop.
FC Copenhagen’s general manager Sule Smith-Nielsen says this allows the club to identify weaknesses in youth players that “may not be the biggest problem right now” in under-17 games, but would be a problem a few years down the line when the player is hopefully playing top-level soccer in the Champions League. By finding these cognitive issues early, FC Copenhagen now have several years to train that part of the player’s cognitive area before they break into the first team.
The use of technology is a big part of FC Copenhagen’s model, in which the club works with local universities and research institutes on soccer-related projects from machine learning to strength training.
These projects generally involve the club’s youth teams. It has been collecting data every few weeks on players’ cognitive profiles. Buster Madsen says this has enabled the club to see different cognitive profiles of players from different positions on the pitch, saying that “if you can understand what is a good cognitive profile” for a holding midfielder or a playmaker, “then you can compare between different players and see where do you need to improve.”
For FC Copenhagen, once the club can be sure of the results of this new technology, it will consider introducing it to the first team, with Smith-Nielsen suggesting that this could happen later this season and that it will eventually be used in scouting and recruitment.
With top players already using technology to improve their cognitive functions though, it might not be long before such brain training becomes commonplace in elite soccer.