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Experienced Soccer Players Good at Copying Others

Update Date: Feb 05, 2013 08:12 AM EST

What makes soccer stars like Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo so good at knowing how to intercept a ball? According to science, it may all have to do with how their brains are wired that allows them to imitate other players' actions.

Researchers from Brunel University recently found that experienced soccer players learn to anticipate and not give in to the opponent players' tricks. In fact, professional footballers' main ability seems to be that they don't get too impulsive while playing.

However, the difference in the activity in the brains isn't all related to natural abilities, but is mostly a result of high-quality training, researchers say.

The study included nearly 39 players, both experienced and first-time players. Researchers attached their brains to an MRI scanner and watched the activity in the brains as these participants looked at a game that included an international-level player dribbling against them.

Researchers found that the more skilled a player was, the more likely he was to know when the opponent player was deceiving movements and when he'd pass the ball to the other player.

The study even found that professional players also had higher levels of activity in Mirror Neuron System (MNS) - a facility that is used by humans to learn by imitation, meaning that these players can imitate other players' movement effectively.

"Our neuroimaging data clearly shows greater activation of motor and related structures in the brains of expert footballers, compared to novices, when taking part in a football-related anticipation task. We believe that this greater level of neural activity is something that can be developed through high quality training, so the next step will be to look at how the brain can be trained over time to anticipate the moves of opponents," said Dr. Daniel Bishop from Brunel University in a news release.

Researchers said that the study will provide new insights in understanding how soccer players respond to cues on the field and react in a fraction of a second.

"Particularly following on from the Olympics, with more people being encouraged to take up sport, we hope that our findings can be used to refine and speed up training techniques to nurture the potential in budding young sports stars," added Bishop.

Previous work on understanding soccer players' brains, reported by HealthDay, has shown that playing soccer can change the way the brain is organized. Even without any known concussions, the brains of these players showed changes in the composition of white matter in the brain.

The study is published in the Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology. 

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