Neuroscience and Talent

I take caffeine for energy and protein for muscle. Can I take myelin for talent? Break myself down enough and I’m electrochemical signals traveling between neurons in the brain. Caffeine hits the right receptors and jolts my brain awake. Is this possible for soccer skill development as well? 

The brain contains a hundred billion neurons. A hundred billion. But you probably need that many to create thoughts or communicate. Complex actions result from signals traveling through neurons to different areas of the brain. The quicker these signals travel, the quicker we can act. Wrapping neural circuits with myelin fires the messages quicker and more accurately, writes Daniel Coyle in The Talent Code. The repercussions? Talent is no longer a vague nature vs nurture argument. It’s the result of targeted practice producing myelin. 

How it works

Part of a neuron, called the axon, conducts and transmits electrical signals. With the axon only, you have a dirt road for signals. To make it a highway, you wrap it with myelin. Repetitive use of a circuit (ie practice) triggers myelin growth. The more you have, the closer you are to Messi or Ronaldo.


This means coaches actually can help. Maybe you can quantify a coach’s skill by measuring myelin levels before and after. Or maybe even infuse myelin and create a super talent, provided you know which of the billion neurons to target. But back to naturally developing talent, I need to focus on three things.

Deep practice

  • Practice deliberately – Rather than practicing to practice, players must constantly recognize mistakes and correct it. This is the player swinging his foot after the play to feel the error and correct it. It should be  frustrating and hard to always correct yourself.
  • Repeat at the edge of your ability – Repetition is important, but deliberate practice is exhausting. Focus limited resources at the edge.
  • Recognize patterns – Group similar skills together and learn them. As you master this set of skills, group a group of skills together. Master those. This way, you can process more and more information at a time. Rather than thinking “Here comes the ball, I need to cushion with my feet, and then pass, and then move,” players can instantly recognize that and focus on the next step instead.


  • Motivation fuels energy, passion, and commitment that deep practice requires. Ignition is about triggering motivation and sustaining it
  • Triggers can come from external sources – being fascinated by an event or action. Or seeing someone similar to you succeed and thinking even they can do it? 
  • Sustained motivation comes from feeling that you’ll be part of something in the long term. You obtain energy from the primal need for belonging
  • Sustained motivation also comes from coaches praising the struggle and hard work, not natural talent. Subconsciously, the gifted may blame external sources for failures rather than overcoming it with work. Make players persevere.

Master Coaching

This is where I come in. I need to:

  • Through experience, obtain so much knowledge of soccer that I can describe each skill in many ways. Imagine the knowledge as a giant matrix I can take from and plug into my players to develop them.
  • Treat them differently, every kid is different. Connect with and find what pushes each person. 
  • Keep pushing the student in the right path with concise, vivid, and targeted messages
  • Be theatrical – send messages in all kinds of ways, especially when pointing out errors

The result?

This ten second Iniesta video. The two defenders around him shift left and right, back and forth, frantically trying to jab the ball. He stands still. You can see Iniesta processing the information around him so much quicker. When he fakes the pass in the sixth second, everyone thinks he’ll pass. That’s how Barcelona play – short, quick passes. But he recognizes the patterns: the defender’ shifted weight, teams trying to stop the ball before it reaches Messi, the quick passing rhythm of his team the defender is tuned into. Through thousands of hours of repetition, he sees all these groups of skills as one item, allowing instantaneous processing. So he pauses. The rhythm breaks, the pass goes through, and he’s not even sweating.


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