The physical defects with which he was born, however, were a completely different matter. His spine was deformed, his right leg bent outwards whilst his left leg was six centimeters shorter and curved inwards. Even his growth was stunted, which is what led his sister to come up with the nickname with which he would be known for the rest of his life: Garrincha, the little bird. Football was out of the question.
Only that it wasn’t. As with most Brazilian boys, Garrincha grew up playing the game. And rather than letting his physique hinder him, with practice he came to use it as an advantage to dribble around bigger, stronger players. Eventually, this ability would be developed to the extent that he became considered a genius of the game.
Garrincha managed to achieve all that he did during his career not because of his physique but because of his brain or, rather, the in-built ability that we all have to shape our co-ordination around out unique physical peculiarities.
This is what brain plasticity - the term used to describe the human brain's ability to change and adapt as a result of experience – is all about. Although humans are all roughly the same (two feet, two hands, a head etc.) everyone is different in one way or another. Some are short whilst others are tall; some are heavy boned whilst others nimble and so on.
Therefore, in order for to brain to allow each person to achieve an objective like walking, it has to have a little flexibility in its coding so that the function of putting one foot in front of the other can handle that individual’s unique build.
Once it is calibrated to that individual, the brain keeps on learning and the more that it repeats a movement the better it becomes at that executing that movement. Run through a rough field once and you’re likely to stumble more than a couple of times. Run through the same field a second time and you’ll fare better. Go over the same path a hundred times and you’ll be breezing over those patches that previously gave you such a hard time. This is because the brain learns and tunes the body accordingly.
Practise does indeed make perfect.
This has many implications. The first, obvious, one is the confirmation that it provides that the road to excellence does lie in practice. The mind can be moulded provided an action is repeated enough times. Admittedly, this is a simplistic way at looking at the relationship between body and mind but it also explain why behind every athlete (or, indeed, any endeavour like playing a musical instrument or a simple computer game) there are hours of practise.
There is, however, a flip side. If the mind is trained to do the same thing over and over, it will tune to body to being good at that but the monotony will limit the ability to do other tasks. To keep with the previous analogy, if you’re running in the same field day after day as soon as you try to run in a different field you will once again start faltering. It is why coaches introduce variations in their training sessions; to ensure that different aspects of one’s ability are enhanced.
From a coaching perspective, the implications of brain plasticity are immense but the main one is this: limiting one’s opinion of a young player’s ability on his physique would be a serious blunder.
This is the first instalment in a two part series. The second feature will look at how brain plasticity changes over time and the implications that there exist for coaches.
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