In this blog we’ll take a look at 3 of the hidden dimensions of elite sports performance, and why training them can provide athletes with a pivotal edge over the competition.
More Than Physical
Athletic skillsets can vary greatly from athlete to athlete, even at highest levels of sports. For example, Messi and Ronaldo – two soccer greats of modern times – have very different physiologies and play styles. A player with a prolific career throughout Manchester United’s golden era was Paul Scholes. Zinedine Zidane proclaimed him to be “undoubtedly the greatest midfielder of his generation”. A small athlete with a very light build for the sport, he didn’t have much physical prowess on the pitch. However, his mental game was renown, which is why Sir Alex Ferguson described him as: ‘One of the greatest football brains Manchester United ever had’.
Sports science shows that when elite players are compared to sub-elite players, differences in mental performance are dramatic. Reading and responding to game flow, predicting opponents and ball trajectories, and responding rapidly under pressure are key areas where elite performers gain a critical edge in competitive play. This clip testing Ronaldo’s abilities gives an idea of how large the mental advantage can be.
A New Training Paradigm
These factors of mental performance have been traditionally difficult to train. However neuroscience is paving the way for technologies that can leverage the brain’s neuroplasticity to provide major performance advantages. NeuroTracker is a key example for this. In a meta-review of 1692 sports science papers, a NeuroTracker study with soccer players was the only study to show clear evidence of transfer to elite competitive performance.
Matt Ryan of the Atlanta Falcons became a role model adopter of NeuroTracker as soon as the Falcons acquired the technology for the team. Over the course of a year, his career skyrocketed him to the Super Bowl final and he earned NFL MVP in 2017. In an article for the New York Times, he spoke about the value of cognitive training,
“We spend a lot of time working on our bodies. It’s equally important to have your mind operating on a high level. That’s key as a quarterback, to be able to see things and how they relate to each other really quickly. I think that’s exactly what NeuroTracker helps you do. I use it all year-round.”
Len Zaichkowsky implemented NeuroTracker for the Vancouver Canucks when he was their Director of Sports Science. He explained how performance data made it clear that this mental training helped them reach the Stanley Cup final and dominate the NHL in the same season.
“The players or coaches would ask, ‘What is the transferability of the work we’re doing (NeuroTracker) with what’s going to happen on the ice?’ In a matter months, I could show them the data – the people who trained the most were the best decision-makers on the ice. There was almost a one-to-one correspondence. You can’t provide better evidence than that.”
So let’s take a look at three reasons why cognitive training tools like NeuroTracker can deliver a performance advantage in elite sports.
In order to excel on the field, awareness is fundamental. One of the biggest challenges is maintaining attention over many moving targets at the same time. On the field this involves perceiving players moving around the athlete, identifying movement patterns in and out of vision, and predicting motion trajectories. During complex play under pressure, athlete’s attentional resources are continuously overloaded. Momentary attentional lapses often result in critical errors during intense moments of big games. However, as NeuroTracker studies show, these fundamental resources can be improved hugely.
Mick Clegg, a Manchester United Coach who helped the club win a series of Premier League titles, explained how useful heightened attention can be.
“Rather than coaching athletes for specific plays or situations, ideally we want to sharpen a player’s cognitive abilities in a way that can be applied to any game situation. It’s a similar idea, for instance, to doing squats to improve sprinting and jumping power. Attention-based training like NeuroTracker benefits the all-important decision-making area of the brain.”
Decision-making relies on attention because the speed and quality of action-response choices rely heavily on situational-awareness and reading the scene fluidly. Training attention capacities to very high levels allows an athlete’s mental game to become robust enough to withstand the pressures of competition.
2. Processing Speed
It’s relatively easy to follow the action when there is little movement, but when motion speeds up, the demands on the brain ramp up very quickly. Most sports require reading dynamic and rapidly moving scenes, with complex movement patterns. Top athletes need to not only process this, but to do so at an incredible speed. Top athletes that can do this have a pivotal edge over opponents in the heat of the action – when it matters most.
NeuroTracker training actually pushes each athlete’s to their limits of speed processing in every session. The training effects show this actually speeds up brain waves, associated with greater alertness, mental focus and faster information processing. Being able to process complex scenes much more quickly means being able to react to plays more rapidly. A common feedback from athletes is that the game seems to ‘slow down’ for them. Pierre Beauchamp, founder of Peak Sport Performance Mindroom and coach of Canadian Olympians, summed up elite athletes’ experiences from NeuroTracker training.
“Our elite athletes report better reading of game flow, heightened anticipation of collisions, faster decision making, and ultimately more confidence under high pressure play.”
3. Peripheral Vision
Vision dominates about 80% of the river of sensory information we take in every second. In team sports, mastering how to use vision is a skill which separates the best from the rest. Mick Clegg explained why.
“The classic difference found between elites and amateurs, is that amateurs over scan for detail, darting their focus point around too much. Why is this a problem? It causes blurred vision in-between scan points, so if your eyes are constantly moving from point to point, most of the time the scene is blurred – compromising peripheral awareness.”
Sports science shows that elite athletes tend to scan much less frequently, focusing only on pertinent details. This allows them to spread their visual attention mentally to draw in as much information as possible. This is even true for anticipating a single opponent’s next move. This is because reading body language involves perceiving many cues across the body simultaneously.
NeuroTracker involves a technique known as a ‘visual pivot’, which is something which you anchor your focus point to, while actually paying attention to action in the periphery.
The task helps an athlete to process complex information across a wide field without having to individually focus on each target. This is much more efficient for the brain and greatly increases the bandwidth that can be put to use for perceiving plays across the field.
Seeing the Difference
Superior attention, processing speed, and peripheral vision are all critical attributes of an elite athlete’s performance skill set. What’s more, these are all very trainable with cognitive technologies like NeuroTracker.
“Once these athletes see the difference NeuroTracker is making on the field, they become completely devoted. It’s the biggest testimonial for a training tool when your clients say ‘Look, I can’t live without this’.”
Dr. Smithson, O.D., Director of Visual Performance for the Washington Nationals
Interested in delving more into the dimension of mental performance? Read our related blogs here.
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