Timing Training in Female Soccer Players: Effects on Skilled Movement Performance and Brain Responses. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience. Article link.
Marius Sommer, Charlotte K. Häger, Carl Johan Boraxbekk and Louise Rönnqvist
Although trainers and athletes consider “good timing skills” critical for optimal sport performance, little is known in regard to how sport-specific skills may benefit from timing training. Accordingly, this study investigated the effects of timing training on soccer skill performance and the associated changes in functional brain response in elite- and sub-elite female soccer players. Twenty-five players (mean age 19.5 years; active in the highest or second highest divisions in Sweden), were randomly assigned to either an experimental- or a control group. The experimental group (n = 12) was subjected to a 4-week program (12 sessions) of synchronized metronome training (SMT). We evaluated effects on accuracy and variability in a soccer cross-pass task. The associated brain response was captured by functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) while watching videos with soccer-specific actions. SMT improved soccer cross-pass performance, with a significant increase in outcome accuracy, combined with a decrease in outcome variability. SMT further induced changes in the underlying brain response associated with observing a highly familiar soccer-specific action, denoted as decreased activation in the cerebellum post SMT. Finally, decreased cerebellar activation was associated with improved cross-pass performance and sensorimotor synchronization. These findings suggest a more efficient neural recruitment during action observation after SMT. To our knowledge, this is the first controlled study providing behavioral and neurophysiological evidence that timing training may positively influence soccer-skill, while strengthening the action-perception coupling via enhanced sensorimotor synchronization abilities, and thus influencing the underlying brain responses.
In summary, this is the first controlled study demonstrating that improved motor timing and multisensory integration, as an effect of SMT, also is associated with changes in functional brain response. The present study provides both behavioral and neurophysiological evidence that timing training positively influences soccer-skill, strengthens the action-perception coupling by means of enhanced sensorimotor synchronization abilities, and affect underlying brain responses. These findings are in accordance with the idea that SMT may result in increased brain communication efficiency and synchrony between brain regions (McGrew, 2013), which in the present study was evident by reduced activation within brain areas important for temporal planning, movement coordination and action recognition and understanding (cerebellum). Also, our results complement findings indicating that the cerebellum plays an important role in the action-perception coupling (Christensenetal.,2014),and confirm recent theories supporting a cognitive-perceptual role of the cerebellum (e.g., Roth et al., 2013).Probing the influence of timing training on the underlying brain activation during soccer specific action observation is an important approach as it provides a window into the brain plasticity associated with non-task specific (timing) training, and to the underlying brain activation of skilled performance. The present study suggests that the underlying brain activation during action observation, which is claimed to be important for action recognition and understanding (e.g., Rizzolatti and Craighero, 2004), may be influenced in other ways than through task-specific training (e.g., Calvo-Merino et al., 2005) or observational learning (e.g., Cross et al., 2013). Such knowledge of how SMT may alter brain activity within regions facilitating the action perception coupling is likely important for enhancing training techniques within sports, as well as for developing new rehabilitative techniques for many clinical populations.