Elite athletes stand head and shoulders above the rest — and that’s not just because of their impressive size and stature. Physique and fitness aside, there’s more to gaining a competitive edge than meets the eye. While it’s true that good genetics and plenty of practice are big part of the equation, separating a contender from the pretenders might have more to do with brains than brawn. A growing body of research suggests that getting ahead starts inside of our heads. But can honing the athletic brain be the key to unlocking elite-level performance?
Mind Over Matter
Athletes and coaches have long touted the benefits of acquiring a mental edge. Wind sprints are tapped as a way to toughen up a team, making them more resilient and thus harder to defeat. Chants and cheers can boost motivation. Setting goals can reduce anxiety and lay the foundation for achieving success on and off the playing field. But, building the type of brain power that influences athletic performance goes way beyond Sports Psychology 101. Where psychological tactics like visualization and self-talk were once the epitome of mental fitness, these techniques only begin to scratch the surface of true mental capacity. Advancements in neuroscience and technology are making it possible for athletes to literally think fast.
But before we can alter or enhance the way our mind processes information in the athletic arena, we have to determine what exactly is going on up there. There’s a complex relationship between thought and action, our mind and our body’s mechanics. And the significance of that relationship increases right along with the level of competition we undertake.
When Peyton Manning takes a snap from center and drops back to deliver a pass, his mind and body work in complete synergy. In an instant he is able to survey the field and deliver a picturesque pass, while simultaneously eluding defenders. Research has shown that executing each move begins when the brain sets a goal: Pick up the ball or throw the pass. Different segments of the brain spring into action to bring this command to life. If there’s a problem along the way, the brain will make corrections and revise its plan. This is true both for us and for Peyton Manning. The difference is that Manning’s brain is likely much more efficient at controlling and correcting these motor skills.
Improving brain efficiency is what enables a skilled soccer players to dribble a ball through cones without looking at their feet. It also explains how it’s possible for cricket players to predict the type of pitch an opposing player would deliver, just by watching a video of the windup. By devoting less energy and attention to the execution of basic movements, high-performing athletes are able to focus on the intricacies of each situation. While onlookers seem astonished at the speed of pro sports, the pros have optimized their minds for the types of decisions and reactions they will encounter in real time.
Engineering the Athletic Brain
Creating this type of optimization among athletes is less about traditional practice (i.e. the repetition of physical skills). According to Jason Sada, President of Axon Sports, an industry leader in athletic brain training and protection, an athlete’s mind must also be developed to unlock his or her full potential.
Using touch screens and computer “games” that improve reaction time and anticipation, among other cognitive skills, Axon helps athletes log more mental reps than they could on the playing field — without all the extra risk of wear and tear. The company’s “above the neck” training is also designed to improve pattern recognition, high-speed decision making and focus. The end goal: to create what Axon refers to as the “athletic brain,” a high-performing machine that is pre-programed to anticipate, read and react to in-game scenarios more effectively.
Upgrade Your Brain
If physical exercise conditions the body, cognitive training rewires the mind. Which means, if we’re going to upgrade our brain, we need to rethink how we think about mental training.
Professor Jocelyn Faubert from the University of Montreal is doing just that. He believes dominance in any athletic domain “can’t be just physical; there’s something about their brains.”
Faubert authored one study that proved this assertion to be true. Using a complex 3D motion-tracking procedure, athletes of varying ability levels saw colored spheres flash on a screen and were asked to track the spheres as they moved and changed colors. As predicted, Faubert and his team found pro athletes to be more proficient than non-athletes, performing the task at high speeds and improving more quickly as time went on.
The outcomes of Faubert’s research support the claims that Axon Sports is chasing down, that a key component to elite-level performance is all in our head. And from the neck up, a new breed of cognitive tools is already taking shape. Here’s a look at just three of the emerging brain training technologies.
Watch and learn. Faubert has already teamed up with CogniSens Athletics to create NeuroTracker, a training system that enhances multiple-object tracking. The ability to track multiple objects at once prepares athletes for high-speed sports situations, like deciphering a defense or reading a baseball as it leaves the pitcher hand. In an attempt to condition the mind using a computer screen, users begin by monitoring a series of targets bouncing around on the big screen. Subjects start out sitting, but progress to standing or performing sports-specific movements while at the same time tracking targets. Over time, the objects speed up and the user is asked to perform more complex movements to get them thinking on their feet.
Take a shot. The team at IntelliGym® has devised a system for improving shot selection and on-court vision outside of the gym. As a matter of fact, there’s no ball or basket. Using a computer screen and keyboard, athletes play a virtual game to improve sport-related skills including peripheral vision and reaction speed. And this isn’t just for basketball players — a similar training approach has brought success to hockey players and pilots, too. In one NASA sponsored research project conducted on U.S. and Israeli Air Force pilots, the cognitive training improved their performance in the cockpit by 30 percent, thereby minimizing “aerial errors and the collateral damage.”
See for yourself. The Retina Institute of Hawaii is teaming up with Nike to create a one-of-a-kind neurosensory and physical training facility. Translation: Doctors are assessing performance based on what an athlete is able to see, not what a scout thinks they see. The evaluation includes a trip to the NIKE SPARQ Sensory Station for a 30-minute evaluation that measures things like visual clarity, depth perception and hand-eye coordination. Next, an eye exam is conducted to further assess vision. Finally, individuals complete five to 10 sports vision training sessions at the Center of Excellence targeting specific sensory strengths and weaknesses.
Meanwhile, companies like Axon Sports are only just scratching the surface of athletic cognitive training. In December 2013 Axon announced a partnership with GSK Human Performance Lab that would enable these two collaborators “to understand and assist elite athletes in their complete body-brain preparation.” Because after all, what athletes, coaches and franchises aren’t looking for the complete package?
Once upon a time weight training and cardio conditioning were enough to transform an average Joe into an all-pro. With more and more individuals striving to harness a competitive edge, the evolution of sport is only in its infancy. By transforming the latest neuroscience research into actionable game-changing performance enhancers, don’t be surprised if brains eventually overtake brawn in the battle for athletic supremacy.