A growing interest in the role of brain function in peak performance is reaching critical mass. In late 2016, The Australian Institute of Sport (AIS) hosted The Performing Brain seminar. Head of Performance Psychology Kirsten Peterson said, “The brain may be the next frontier… in what we understand… where sport is going to be heading and what we can do to maximize performance…” and concluded with,
“I hope we’re all on the same page in wanting to learn more about that.”
Released around the same time, Pulitzer Prize nominated and best-selling book Stealing Fire reports how Navy SEALS, Google, and Silicon Valley are combining neuropsychology, psychology, and technology in pursuit of flow and group flow to accelerate learning and performance.
Prior to both though were three series of Todd Sampson’s Redesign My Brain which beautifully illustrated practical applications of ‘brain function training’ to accomplish seemingly impossible tasks for an untrained person like safe cracking, underwater escapes, and tight rope walking over a Sydney highrise!!
Now please note I am not talking about ‘THE MIND’ which is what we say to ourselves, the memories and predictions we are consciously aware of in our stream of consciousness. This article and line of work is referring to the wet wear, the neurons, glia, synapses, neurotransmitters and axons which work to create that experience of consciousness and enable our behaviour and performances.
Therefore, if you change the brain, you change the conscious experience and behavior, right?
Now do we all need to go out and get a PhD in Neuroscience, a Masters in Sport Psychology or electrical bioengineering to navigate this brave new world? With the brain many of us feel like the picture below:
As humans we are in such rush to escape our inner demons as well as to gain an edge over our competition.
- Do we simply trust crowd funded neuro-tech start-ups who promise to deliver us enhanced performance through brain stimulation, neurofeedback or some other method….?
- Do we trust in peer-reviewed academic research and science should we with their mounds of gold standard peer-review evidence to ensure we are making critical and evidence based decisions…?
It’s a delicious, tantalising and exciting dilemma which as a practicing performance psychology coach I have wrestled with these past 6 1/2 years.
This article reflects the key criteria I’ve used to decide (without all the facts) what is relevant and what is probably “neuro-bunk.”
Now despite the consciousness raising efforts of academics, authors and documentary maker’s, certain challenges in psychology remain.
Quantifying effectiveness, avoiding psychology stigma associated with Freud, talking therapy, electric shock treatment, and only being considering when something is going wrong!
Struggling with those factors in my own practice, I decided to be the first in Australia to invest in NeuroTracker, a 3D multiple object tracking program, which was about as far from the image of traditional psychology as could be. It was performance driven, used 3D and 80-inch projection screens, integrating physical activities with the psychological. Since February 2014 never once has NeuroTracker failed to elicit a “WOW, that’s cool!” response from coaches and athletes. Try getting that with traditional sport psychology!
However, I had to be true to my scientist-practitioner roots in psychology and serve my clients from an evidence base. Thus, I was encouraged when Visual Tracking Speed (VTS) showed a credible research base from the University of Montreal and it appeared to be ‘not just lights and whistles’ like many online training ‘brain training’ programs.
VTS had been shown to differ according to performance ability, fitness, age, mTBI, influence biological motion processing, ADHD, and was featured in leading peer-reviewed Journals.
Further, changes in frontal and visual brain regions indicative of heightened focus and concentration were found after 1 hour of NeuroTracker training… and a very far transfer study found improved passing accuracy in soccer from 1 ¾ hours of training (Romeas & Faubert, 2016). I went ALL IN.
From a professional coach perspective, I turn to Matt Elliott, Director of Strong Minds Australia, and former NRL head coach, who also presented at the AIS Performing Brain seminar. His sage advice to practitioners of brain training in the high performing space goes,
“No matter what… programs must be (1) engaging, (2) effective, and (3) efficient.”
With NeuroTracker I could gain and maintain a client’s attention with novel 3D, make a noticeable difference to their VTS and brain function, and with 3–4 training sessions taking only 18–24 minutes per week, it took very little time from “core sporting” tasks.
While NeuroTracker ticked all those boxes the core aspects of performance psychology are cognitive and affective. As a cognitive-perceptual task NeuroTracker did not and could not claim to impact emotions (although often an athlete’s propensity for frustration, fixed mindset, or negative self-talk emerges which a performance coach then can get to work exploring).
Also, while the program suited dynamic action and team based sports it didn’t appear to be effective for static sports such as golf, baseball pitching, or cricket. Thus, began my next search to fill that void in my practice… developing an ‘equanimous brain’.
As Kotler and Wheal describe in Stealing Fire and Flow: Rise of Superman, altered states of flow are explained by ‘transient hypofrontality’ with a reduction in activity of the left-frontal lobes. Neurofeedback measures that brain wave activity however medical grade devices price from $3000 — $10000. Having already gone ‘all in’ with the NeuroTracker I struggled.
I wanted something portable, needed it under $1000 with no ongoing subscriptions, and which provided a valid measurement. I looked at the VERSUS, Emotiv EEG and Muse headsets (all quality equipment).
I decided Focusband met those criteria. Although, it’s developers used the term ‘mushin’ or “mind of no mind” instead of flow. Athletes’ learn in real-time when they are getting into/out of flow and getting out of/in their own way during a golf swing, conversion kick, or tennis serve via visual, auditory and tactile feedback.
Essentially, Focusband founders Graham and Henry Boulton are measuring a person’s ability to perform mindfully. Further, they guide clients to enter mushin by applying awareness of breath, noticing of body sensations and practicing acceptance which are all pillars of a best-practice mindfulness approach. PGA World Number #1 Jason Day attributes much of his success to Focusband and I love the technology for the state of brain/mind one gets into… particularly useful for my Tetris training, meditation during the day (helps to nod off for a quick power nap), and while writing or studying.
A bonus of this technology is like Neurotracker’s VTS measure, mushin scores vary due to changes in an athlete’s sleep, nutrition, workload, fatigue and social stressors… and these measures are unfudgeable… where as these rating scales are!
So, I’ve now got two performance psychology training technologies which measure and train different regions of the brain according to the different demands relevant for certain sports and are sensitive to fatigue, mood, stress and workload.
Due to their novelty they are (1) naturally engaging, (2) effectively elicit changes in the brain and subsequently performance, and (3) take less than half an hour to apply. However, performance is more than just our brain…. and that where we’re introducing the final piece of the performing brain enhancing technology.
Psychophysiology Meets the Fockers
Not many will know that the brain recieves more signals than it sends. Primarily throught he vagus nerve, so a key to changing the brain is to drive the brain through influencing signals going from the heart, muscles and lungs.
Once again, Todd Sampson showed the world how this kind of ‘emotional intelligence training’ (with Sue Langley) and biofeedback (with AIS Senior Recovery Physiologist Shona Halson) allowed him to perform death defying stunts. Hooked up to multiple sensors and using focusing and breathing techniques, Todd gradually increased his emotional coherence, a measure of heart rate variability (HRV) which indicates cardiovascular resilience. When the brain recieved those signals it ‘interpreted all is well.’
Wheal and Kotler also reported how HRV profiles of US submariners and Fortune 500 candidates were measured and accurately predicted who would gel with the team and who would zone out… and it was trainable! I realised I was doing my client’s a disservice not providing them a valid HRV and psychophysiology training option.
Thankfully, Thought Technology, a leader in the biofeedback and neurofeedback field for decades had just launched their eVu-TPS (triple processing sensor) in late 2016. It was portable, connected via Bluetooth, required no added subscriptions, was under $1000, and measured two other stress indicators: skin conductance and skin temperature.
Like the Neurotracker and Focusband, eVu-TPS scores vary depending on variations in wellness though generally, TPS scores have an upward trend as, like Todd did, athletes and coaches learn to enter their rest and digest, contentment, clarity and acceptance states of mind-body more rapidly…. and remain there longer. See below for my own practical records with the TPS.
A limitation of the device is it must be stationary so is ideally suited for sports where breaks in play occur although using the device for regular monitoring of a person’s ability to switch off intentionally would be a useful metric.
Recently HRV biofeedback has shown promise in recovering from concussions, head trauma and PTSD so is another valid tool for the home grown human to keep abreast of further research.
More neuro-technologies are emerging in this growing marketplace and if I had unlimited funds I’d probably purchase and try them all out. However, like Dr Mike Martin, Head of Performance Psychology at NSWIS, said of his purchase of NeuroTracker and VERSUS EEG, “Looking back I’d probably get one piece of tech and master that…. Otherwise it gets overwhelming. Each tech goes deep.” I agree and..
I have successfully combined all three technologies to simultaneously train visual attention, flow brain-states, and HRV coherence. I believe this represents…
…the ultimate state for aspiring high performers to practice getting into: switched on, mindful and resilient.
In summary, I hope this article has illustrated how neuro-technologies are now capable of measuring and training cognitive and affective drivers of peak performance and has provided you with a range of decision making criteria to use when sifting through all the “neuro-bunk” out there.
The more of us out there using, benefiting from, and buying into the use of performance psychology technology, the better we will perform, and the more our friends, family, clients and fellow humans will be likely to follow our lead. After all, we are humans, and therefore are really in the leadership game, aren’t we?
About Rob Gronbeck
Rob is a Performance Psychology Coach, Researcher & Author who runs The Brain Room in Australia. Rob is a veteran NeuroTracker coach who has garnered endless praise from athletes raising their game with training.
Rob works with athletes at the intersection of coaching, neuroscience and technology to improve sports performance. Rob was the first trainer in Australia to adopt NeuroTracker and coaches clients such as Basketball Australia, Australian Kendo, Northern Pride, FNQ Heat, Cairns Hockey, Cairns Volleyball. He has received an academic medal from James Cook University and presented his research at national and state psychology conferences.
Interested to find out more about how NeuroTracker can improve your overall cognitive performance? Check out Rob’s previous Expert Corner blog.
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