Brain Development and College Football




Football closeup

Most of us have experienced the thrills and agonies of watching our chosen sports teams either perform well or poorly. During college football season in the United States, millions of fans devote their weekends to watching people run up and down fields while trying to avoid getting too injured. Those who follow college football notice that there are not many freshman players who are starting quarterbacks. Why is this? Other than the generally obvious fact that most teams already have quarterbacks who are farther along in their schooling, another reason why there are not many starting freshman quarterbacks is not as obvious.

Quarterbacks are like field officers in the military. They have responsibility for the immediate, tactical plan of the football game. That is one reason that successful quarterbacks are generally intelligent people – they have to keep track of plays and direct the entire offense through the trenches of the field. When it comes down to game time, they need to be able to make decisions under pressure. Some of this ability comes from experience but experience cannot explain everything. So why are freshman quarterbacks not usually starters and when they are, why do many seem to struggle? Further, what does all this have to do with the brain?

It is generally accepted that brain development continues into the third decade of life with some of the most important areas for complex reasoning and decision making developing last. One of these areas is the prefrontal region, which is the most anterior portion of the frontal lobes. While the cortex, or bodies of the brain cells, is changing during this period, it is possible that the greatest changes and development are in the underlying white matter, which is composed of the connections (axons) between brain cell bodies. These white matter changes include increased myelination, which increases the speed brain cells can communicate with each other. Myelination of the white matter (myelin is a fatty substance that looks white) is similar to insulating electrical wires, it helps maintain the integrity of the connections and reduces interference; it also increases the speed at which brain cells communicate.

Because the frontal region of the brain is among the last to develop, cognitive functions that rely on that area of the brain are often the last to mature. Again, the frontal region of the brain, among other things, is involved in decision making, planning, and impulse control. Adolescents who have attention and impulse problems (i.e., ADHD), have been shown to have both functional and white matter structure differences in the frontal portion of the brain. In general, there is a lot of development that occurs in this brain region throughout adolescence. This might partially explain why college freshmen often go a little wild, especially compared to juniors and seniors. There are exceptions, of course, but people generally get better at making decisions as they age and not just because they have more experience — there are changes in the structure of the brain.

Bringing this back to football, we can infer that freshman quarterbacks often struggle in part because the development of the brain is still occurring, especially in areas related to decision making. So some of the improvement in performance over time is due to experience but some of it is because parts of the brain are more fully developed. Knowing this may not help you when your team and young quarterback are struggling but it can give you hope for future seasons once the quarterback gets better connections in his frontal lobes.

Quarterbacks are like field officers in the military. They have responsibility for the immediate, tactical plan of the football game. That is one reason that successful quarterbacks are generally intelligent people — they have to keep track of plays and direct the entire offense through the trenches of the field. When it comes down to game time, they need to be able to make decisions under pressure. Some of this ability comes from experience but experience cannot explain everything. So why are freshman quarterbacks not usually starters and when they are, why do many seem to struggle? Further, what does all this have to do with the brain?It is generally accepted that brain development continues into the third decade of life with some of the most important areas for complex reasoning and decision making developing last. One of these areas is the prefrontal region, which is the most anterior portion of the frontal lobes. While the cortex, or bodies of the brain cells, is changing during this period, it is possible that the greatest changes and development are in the underlying white matter, which is composed of the connections (axons) between brain cell bodies. These white matter changes include increased myelination, which increases the speed brain cells can communicate with each other. Myelination of the white matter (myelin is a fatty substance that looks white) is similar to insulating electrical wires, it helps maintain the integrity of the connections and reduces interference; it also increases the speed at which brain cells communicate.

Because the frontal region of the brain is among the last to develop, cognitive functions that rely on that area of the brain are often the last to mature. Again, the frontal region of the brain, among other things, is involved in decision making, planning, and impulse control. In general, there is a lot of development that occurs in this brain region between the age of 18 and the early 20s. This might partially explain why college freshmen often go a little wild, especially compared to juniors and seniors. There are exceptions, of course, but people generally get better at making decisions as they age and not just because they have more experience — there are changes in the structure of the brain.

Bringing this back to football, we can infer that freshman quarterbacks often struggle in part because the development of the brain is still occurring, especially in areas related to decision making. So some of the improvement in performance over time is due to experience but some of it is because parts of the brain are more fully developed. Knowing this may not help you when your team and young quarterback are struggling but it can give you hope for future seasons once the quarterback gets better connections in his frontal lobes. While there is no research specifically supporting my hypothesis, it is a reasonable extension of well-established brain development research.

References

Silk, T., Vance, A., Rinehart, N., Bradshaw, J., & Cunnington, R. (2009). White-matter abnormalities in attention deficit hyperactivity disorder: A diffusion tensor imaging study Human Brain Mapping, 30 (9), 2757-2765 DOI: 10.1002/hbm.20703

Ashtari M, Cervellione KL, Hasan KM, Wu J, McIlree C, Kester H, Ardekani BA, Roofeh D, Szeszko PR, & Kumra S (2007). White matter development during late adolescence in healthy males: a cross-sectional diffusion tensor imaging study. NeuroImage, 35 (2), 501-10 PMID: 17258911

  • http://masterofmedicine.com/ jobinmartin

    Good article.I like the concept.Can’t it be just because the freshers lack experience and as the case with any other profession experience counts in football too.New information is coded into the brain and we become more acquainted to the process as we experience more of the game. The same applies to the medical profession too, as we can see even though a fresher has all the info he requires to treat a patient, he may fumble because of the lack of experience.

    Loved reading the article.

  • http://www.brainybehavior.com/blog/ Jared

    Thanks for the comment. Yes, it certainly could just be a lack of experience. Although, with the medical field I believe that new doctors do not make more mistakes on average than older, more experienced doctors do.

    I just wanted to put forth one hypothesis about how brain development might affect people in difficult and cognitively taxing situations. Many athletes do not peak until their late 20s to 30s. That’s partially experience, partially muscle development, and partially (potentially) brain development.

Jared Tanner, PhD

Jared Tanner has a Ph.D. in clinical psychology with an emphasis in neuropsychology. His interests are mainly neuroimaging and neuroanatomy. He spends his research time looking at the structure of gray and white matter in the brains of people with Alzheimer's disease and Parkinson's disease. With a focus on neuropsychology, he is also interested in how normal and abnormal brain structure relates to cognitive and behavioral functioning.
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