Classically the physiological limits to performance in football and in other sports may be cardiovascular and/or metabolic. However, this view does not explain the situation in a match when players stop exercising without significant legs’ fatigue and cardiovascular stress. It seems that something else beyond the muscles and the heart function is related to our decision stop exercising. Several studies over the last years provide evidence on the role of the brain and in particular of the central nervous system on exercise performance.
Data agree that exercise starts and ends in the brain. It starts with partial motor unit recruitment and stops with motor unit de-recruitment. According to this hypothesis, the central nervous system (CNS) integrates signals from various sources in the body (working muscles, arteries, peripheral organs) and limits the recruitment of motor units in an attempt to maintain homeostasis. Brain is trying to protect us from serious damage.
Therefore, exercise is stopped by a forced decision from the brain not to go far a certain point before “catastrophe” occurs. Brain is protecting us from serious damages. It seems that limitations set by the central nervous system may deteriorate performance.
It remains clear that genetic abilities and high physical capacity lead to high performance but in a match the difference between a winner and a loser may be not so much on physical aspects but in how big is the safety margin set by the central nervous system. Perhaps elite performers do so well because they are able to push the limits set by the CNS closer to the danger zone which would explain their success when playing against players with similar physical and other abilities.