Neurosciences and Diego Maradona: Why he is the best player

A recent article in Nature Neuroscience (Nature Neuroscience – 9, 1083 – 1084 (2006)
doi:10.1038/nn0906-1083) discusses how we pay attention to a relevant visual stimuli in relation to its change in position in the environment. A skill that is particularly suited to playing football.
Playing football depends on knowing how everything else on the field is moving with respect to the ball.
To be successful at playing a high level of football, our eyes have to scan the specifics of the situation but also give us a general picture of what is happening in the environment so that we can place the situation in context. This phenomena happens in almost every situation that is fluid. With increasing and faster changes in the environment the attention of a person shifts from the information his eyes gives him, to a broader frame of attention. A particularly skilled football player can do that very quickly.
An attention-centered reference frame would make this kind of relative position information explicit and stable, even when the eyes move for a better look at specific parts of the image. Remember the fantabulous goal that Robin Van Persie scored, when Eboue dropped a pass, between two Charlton Athletic defenders. Persie made a quick visual scan of where the ball would drop. The general context was the distance he was away from the ball, where the defenders were in relation to the ball and him, and the goal and the goalkeeper in relation to him. Once his eyes fixed on where the ball would drop, he timed that full tilt run and volleyed the ball past the goalkeeper into the top of the net.
A simple analogy would be that in the early stages of learning to play tennis, you invariably pay attention to trying to get the ball across the net. There is no attention paid to your opponent and where he or she is located. It is only through practice that your attention shifts from the net to the general context of your opponents movements. This happens in a stepwise fashion. A brilliant player like Roger Federer can set up an opponent several shots in advance (probably more than 5 shots) and score a winner. This is because in highly skilled players the attentional system can shift seamlessly between the visual input to the eyes to the general context of the information.
Motion is represented in an area called MT (Middle Temporal), a part of the visual association area of the temporal lobe in the brain. The cells in the MT area have huge receptive fields (akin to radio transmission areas, as in we can hear WCKR from Manhattan all the way to southern New Jersey), i.e., they have big catchment areas that can pick up visual stimuli. MT cells code the speed and the direction of motion of visual targets. The information that these cells access are used to generate visual perception, maintaining visual scanning/ or tracking, and guiding bodily movements through the environment.
In this regard Diego Maradona is probably the best player in football to date. We can argue back and forth but Maradona was one player who never had to look at his feet while dribbling the ball upfield, with his eyes constantly scanning ahead looking at how players changed their positions in relation to the ball at his feet. This gave him so many options- he could go it alone or set up a pass to Caniggia or Batustita many plays in advance.
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Complete information on the article:
Nature Neuroscience – 9, 1083 – 1084 (2006)
doi:10.1038/nn0906-1083
Attention: beyond neural response increases
Charles E Connor
The author is in the Department of Neuroscience and at the Zanvyl Krieger Mind/Brain Institute, Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, Maryland 21218, USA. connor@jhu.edu

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4 comments on “Neurosciences and Diego Maradona: Why he is the best player
  1. Hello Mr. Connor,
    whit great interest I read the article you wrote about specific skill a soocerplayer needs to be effective.
    I am developing a trainingprogramm for soccerplayers to improve ther performance in goal-near situations.
    This programm contents 4 parts, i.c. motoric learning, mental imaging, arousal-control technics and distracting the opponent players from their task.
    I am intersted in literature how players can learn and improve their skills in specific stressfull situations, for example striking the ball correctly in near-goal situations.
    Do you know where to find this kind of literature?
    According to my profession, i am a graduated psychologist and registrated psychotherapist for behaviour therapy
    Many thanks
    harald Orfgen

  2. Hi Harald
    Thanks for the comment. I think what you are doing is really interesting.
    I think the best place to find this sort of material is at the http://www.psychwatch.com/sport_psychology.htm
    website that gives a comprehensive listing of sports psychology resources.
    You can also access literature on dual task skills- in improving attention in near goal situations.
    Hope this helps!
    Best, Shourin Roy

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