Neuromuscular anatomy and football skills: Crossover dribble or nutmeg?

Pele, Garrincha, Eusebio, Puskas, Boniek, Maradona, Cruyff, Platini, Bergkamp, Ronaldinho, have some pretty amazing ball dribbling skills, you’ll agree. They make it look so easy. In fact, football skills are one of the hardest things to do. Much harder than the dribbling skills that we see in basketball players. That is because our legs and feet have neuroanatomical and musculoskeletal connections that are far less numerous and well developed than that to our arms and hands. In other words we have far less muscles, nerves, blood vessels, devoted to our lower body. That is because for the finer manipulative and dexterous work that hands do, we need more input. The legs assist us in the cruder work of locomotion. In short we have better control over our hands than we do over our feet.
Simple exercise: Flap both your hands up and down, alternating. Try and do the same with your feet. See how fast you can go with your hands and vary your speed more comfortably. At some point the feet will get locked in phase, i.e., is move up or down simultaneously. This gives an idea of the difference in movement control that we have over our hands and feet and how independent the hands are compared to the feet. Our fingers have much more movement than our toes, and that movement is much more independent of the adjacent finger than it is with our toes. The differential control over each of our fingers and thumb is what gives the hand its versatility.
Sensory homunculus: Size of the brain area occupied by the hands compared to the feet
The brain area occupied to the control of the hands is at least four times larger than the area of the brain given to the legs and feet. Just look at the picture of the homunculus. See how much area is given to the arms and legs, and to facial expression. We need an immense amount of control to rearrange our face to reflect the various expressions, from quizzical to fear. Most of them require minute adjustments because the facial muscles are very small and are richly supplied with nerves and blood vessels. That is why people all over the world despite cultural differences recognize the universality of emotion. The same way, our hands are in constant use typing, reaching and picking up objects, doing precise work like threading a needle. An hour of trying to thread needles will exhaust you more than just swinging your legs back and forth because there are so many more blood vessels going to the arm than to the legs, it takes more out of you cardio-vascularly. That is why arm activities (e.g., picking up heavy loads, gardening) are restricted after coronary artery bypass graft surgeries. The size of representation varies in people, depending on what they do. This is because of the brain’s amazing property of neural plasticity. Professional football players will have a bigger amount of brain area occupied to the control over legs and feet over the average sedentary Joe, while the cigar rollers in Cuba will have bigger hand and finger areas. The point to be noted is that we all start off with much smaller areas to the legs and feet then we do with the arms and hands but because of our occupation the proportion might change. An amputee or a stroke patient who loses the use of his arm but is able to walk will have a smaller brain area representing arms and fingers as compared to his legs. Similarly, a bilateral knee amputee who can use his hands to manipulate a wheelchair or a specialized car ore ven walk with the help of prosthetic legs will have a diminished area of representation of his feet in the brain. In fact, the arm and hand area envelop the feet area, taking over.
Somewhere down the line in our evolution (loaded term nowadays!!), from our quadruped position to the bipedal one, our focus shifted to our hands, making them more dexterous than our legs. A phenomenon that is reversed in chimpanzees who are equally good at doing things with their hands and legs, i.e., the lack of an opposable thumb.
Our world is much more weighted towards our hands. It is after all our most interactive part of our body. We can get paralyzed in our face but we can draw out the emotion we feel or write what we want. That is why robotic engineers have been stymied for years to come up with a robotic hand as dexterous as the human hand. We will have a robotic football team before we have a basketball team. The World Cup 2050 Finals might see the Brazilian team play India, manned entirely by robots, made in the Indian Institute of Technologies (IIT, made famous by Dilbert)because that is the only way India is going to qualify for the World Cup.
Simple exercise: Close your eyes and move your hand up and down and estimate how much you have moved in angles. You will be more precise in your estimation than when you move your feet up and down. That is because our hands have better positional control, richer in receptors that calculate joint position sense. We use this sense to shape our hand when we reach out and pick up our cup of coffee or play tiddlywinks. The same position is used in a grosser way by our feet when we slip on our sandals.
This sense is very important in fast moving situations where vision is fleeting at best and you have to come up with a basket. Those skilled basketball players still come up with some amazing shots.It is easier to adjust a mismatch between hand position and the net, to come up with a more accurate trajectory. Not too many airballs there. With a superior joint position sense in the hands, most basketball players can can driblle the ball ahead without having to look down at their hands. Eye-hand coordination is getting better with all the Nintendo and X-Box games. On the other hand, eye-foot co-ordination is much poorer, with little scope for quick or ‘online’ adjusments. That is why the skills shown by Maradona are phenomenal, a player that rarely looked down when running with the ball. And that is also why the most skilled players in football still have problems putting the ball into the goal though. Not all their fault because of the lag in co-ordination although Frank Lampard still can’t escape with that one.
In conclusion, the next time you see a crossover dribble by Kobe Bryant and then see a nutmeg done by Franck Ribery, please refer to this gobbledygook that I have written, and you will appreciate how much more difficult it was for Ribery to do this given the fact that in the neuronanatomical and musculoskeletal scheme, the leg and the foot have a lot less going for them than the arm and the hand. You can also shoot down the critics of football this way. Fully informed is fully armed (pun intended).
For a more detailed look at the neuro and musculoskeletal anatomy of the body parts >>

One comment on “Neuromuscular anatomy and football skills: Crossover dribble or nutmeg?
  1. I was going to comment, but i won’t because I am absolutely gob smacked! The question remains, does this mean that in regards to nueromuscular superiority, the humble goalkeeper is much more talented? Goalkeepers must use both their hands and their feet. AWESOME post!

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