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Connecting sport and neuroscience to develop adolescents’ dopamines for good.

In this #ebbfinterview Kami and Perry share how they connected their experience on the soccer fields as adolescents to a professional passion using science to help young players fulfill their potential on and off the pitch.

#ebbfmember Kami Lamakan always believed that he learnt many important life skills on the football pitches of Torquay in the 1980s. Over 30 years later, a chance encounter with Dr. Perry Walters, a researcher of the adolescent mind and former pro-footballer, gave Kami a scientific understanding of what he intuitively “felt” happened to him all those years ago on the wet and muddy fields of his small seaside hometown in the UK.

Over many cups of coffee, Kami and Perry, discussed watching their own children being taught on the pitch and in the classroom. It was easy to see the approaches taken didn’t always reflect the emerging science of the adolescent brain. UNICEF have identified adolescence as “the second window of opportunity”. Perry and Kami felt that this opportunity was being missed. Their “parental instinct” was to do something about this.

So they co-founded the Institute for Development of Young Minds in Sport.

The idea was specifically to help in sport but also to contribute to a broader discourse about youth development in other areas like education, communities and business.

“As a coach of Bristol City Football Club and as an educational consultant for the English Football Association I have been studying what motivates players to develop their full potential, as players and as human beings. This double connection is very important to me.

In my research I discovered the emerging science on the adolescent brain showing how, contrary to popular belief, the development of youth’s brains does not stop at a young age but can continue to develop and be shaped also during adolescence.”

“I realized how the opportunity to still be able to shape the brains of people of that age could have a profound impact on the development of young people in all areas including schooling and, where my passion is, sport. I think you learn so much on a pitch or court that you can’t learn as easily in a classroom particularly life skills.

As sport is a shared, universal language it can bring people together and help to build relationships. Therefore sport is an invaluable tool to help communities grow and improve. Ultimately my dream is to help adolescents use sports to fulfill their potential as players and as people. “

Q: Kami how did the two of you meet and what got you going?

“We were brought together by a mutual friend when the local university was looking to see how it might work with an area of economic deprivation in our home town of Bristol. A three year friendship started and now when this opportunity came up Perry called me up and suggested that we make this happen together.

The idea is to focus both in Perry’s area of experience, the professional sport sphere, but also help in youth development in grassroots sports.”

“Actually yes, it was at a time of need which I am sure is common to many Fathers, why aren’t my adolescent children listening to me?” Kami commented smiling.

“Perry helped me to understand what happens in the minds of adolescents. I mean we have assumptions about what goes on in there but talking to Perry I saw a way to give meaning to many of those conversations, to help young people develop positively.

Sport is something that helped me too, as a young kid a “few” years ago, as an immigrant, I entered this sport’s universal language and on a football pitch in Torquay, for me as a young boy trying to make my way in a different culture the experience was incredibly powerful.”

“Both as a teacher and as a professional football coach I kept seeing this gap in understanding on how to develop the mind of those adolescents, a psychological gap and a communication gap.

It seemed such a big gap to fill, and a very worthwhile one.

I had worked with that age group as a teacher, and when some 10 or so years ago a new understanding of the development of the brain at that age emerged, thanks to new imaging technology, I decided I wanted to use those insights.

I was in a good position because of my PhD at the University of Bristol, my experience as a teacher in schools and my work in the FA and professional football gave me a unique connection with three key stakeholders.

It allowed me to build the bridge between the “lab” and the application of neuroscience in schools and in professional sports.”

Q: Perry could you tell us more about the paradigm shift that you discovered?

“The general thinking is that once you reach the age of adolescence you are entering a time that everyone wishes is over quickly or that some kind of a lid is put on it to contain its apparent excesses and incongruencies.

Actually I found that this is an amazing time, one of the richest for learning, as long as you can create the right conditions and, the right environment.

The fundamental element was shifting from what I observed, how the interactions between coaches and players in elite football was more about controlling, about instilling a fear of making mistakes and of fitting in, of conformity.

Our model instead encourages and rewards taking risks and developing, stretching, finding out.”

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“Adolescents seek reward, and often the reward is a quick fix of dopamine. It is an age when this trigger is at its strongest. They can achieve this by creating an exciting situation.

What we do is to shift the dopamine rush trigger from the usual “drive a car too fast” to a more positive action. The results in terms of satisfaction is surprisingly similar from a “bad” act as it is a “good” act. So if we can create the right reward cycles instead of bad ones, a virtuous cycle creates a behaviour that helps the development of the adolescent.“

Q: Perry you also mentioned the peer group as an important driver of your work on adolescents?

“Yes, research suggests, that there is a drive to connect that is underpinned by our evolutionary history.

Pushed away from the safety of home and family, youngsters reflect the need for safety in numbers.

We know that adolescents take more risks when they are with their peer group, because being with friends makes rewards become even more rewarding:
when an adolescent drives on their own, their behaviour follows similar patterns to that of adults, but when adolescents have other friends next to them in the car, then the risk taking increases three-fold.

So connected to the paradigm shift we talked about earlier, we increase dopamine by creating environments where you create more creative and positive “risks”.

For example if you put an adult amongst teenagers it dumps down the dopamine, this is great of course when you want to calm down a crazy party, but when you want to develop the problem solving and creative thinking of the adolescent then the adult’s presence becomes detrimental.

So we aim to train coaches to find the balance to avoid rewarding compliance patterns “do what I say” and to instead to encourage good answers by posing questions like “what would you do in this situation?”.

The underlying idea is to shift from the current role of professional coaches, taking them off centre stage, with their presence instead allowing, stimulating growth, creating the right development environment.”

“No. This question raises an important point. It is not just about this one relationship but it is about everyone around the young player. If the coach is encouraging independent thought it doesn’t help if the parents on the sidelines are giving instructions. If the clubs talk about wanting young players to get better but only rewards winning games, then these mixed messages will be difficult for the adolescent to decode. So really it is about creating a culture focussed on development and learning rather than simply “winning”.

“Sport provides so many good triggers to have a meaningful conversation about what is the right thing to do. One of my children was in a successful team. When they were leading a match that was coming to an end, they were coached to “play out the game”. This involved what might be viewed as innocuous things like taking less risky actions. But it also involves more contentious things like time-wasting. So in having a chat with my daughter you are having to discuss what each of you think is right to do. Without these chats about what you are experiencing a “win at any costs” mentality can easily creep in, you can lose sight of the pleasure that comes from playing.

In business profit can be the equivalent of “winning” in sport. You can make decisions and follow the money because you haven’t really considered the broader purpose of what you are doing or collectively deliberated on what you think and feel is the right thing to do.

I think business can learn a lot from sport and sport can learn a lot from business. And both of them can benefit from combining emerging knowledge from science with moral principles.
Hopefully Perry and I can contribute something to this area.”

Institute of Development of Young Minds in Sport (IDYOMS)

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baha’i-inspired global learning community, accompanying individuals and groups, to transform business + economy contributing to a prosperous civilization

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