December 19, 2015
Serious athletes push their minds and bodies to the limit of human performance. Some achieve feats that defy expectations for our species: Roger Bannister broke the 4-minute mile in 1958; Benedikt Magnusson deadlifted over 1,000 pounds in 2011.
On the surface, these achievements are physical in nature. In fact, it is the mental agility of athletes that leads to their success on the field. Indeed, professional athletes vary day-to-day in their performance, and clearly this is not rooted in daily physical variance but mental attention and focus. Top teams will lose a few matches every year, often to bottom-of-the-league teams, showing how being 'in the zone’, or not, can determine the outcome. Sometimes the exceptional performance of one key player will be the difference.
One important mental skill, when competing in high-level sports, is reading body movements. Being able to perceive the movement of a competing runner or a teammate is key to making good decisions in real time. Biological motion is key to every sport, from hockey to football, from soccer to baseball, from track-and-field to wrestling.
It has been proven in multiple scientific experiments that professional athletes are better than average at perceiving biological motion. This capacity further translates into many advantages. Their reaction times, decision-making, and accuracy in delivering passes are all directly linked to their biological perception abilities. Their predictive power is greatly increased, enabling them to better understand future positions of teammates, defenders, and goaltenders, which clearly will improve performance. Many of the world’s best team-sport athletes are said to have ‘eyes in the back of their heads’, which is actually about predictive power.
In a study released in September of 2015, Thomas Romeas and Dr. Jocelyn Faubert of the Visual Psycophysics and Perception Laboratory in Montreal found that athletes who are experts at biological motion perception had superior results in predicting passes in soccer and had quicker reaction times. Non-athletes who did not have the expertise in motion tracking were less proficient at nearly every task.
So how does an athlete train this part of their game? Most training time for competitive athletes is aimed at keeping the body in shape. But the brain needs to 'go to the gym' as much as the muscles. Mental training is most often only an implicit part of other training, such as game-paced motion tracking practice during a scrimmage.
That’s where targeted cognitive training comes in. NeuroTracker is one example, where science has shown it improves the ability to read biological motion. It was already known that elite athletes were able to better predict where defenders and teammates would move. Crucially, it was shown that these underlying skills can be positively influenced using NeuroTracker training, and this influence on improving sports action predictions are now being specifically studied.
Professional sports teams are now increasingly allocating precious training time to biological motion perception training. Specialized sports training and sports vision centers are also emerging, which now offer such leading-edge sports training to other serious athletes who do not have access to such facilities through sports clubs. As this practice grows, one can predict that this will lead to better on-field performance and the sprouting of more ‘eyes in the back of the head'.
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