02. Experts Corner

How the Brain and Body are Connected in Sports Performance

May 5, 2017

In 2012, it became clear to me just how physical motor-skills and cognitive abilities are intertwined. That year I published a study that related to the training performance of top pro teams in European Rugby, the NHL and EPL. All the teams in the study used NeuroTracker for performance training throughout the 2010 to 2011 season.

Impacting Performance

A key insight we discovered was that even small, simple differences in training can impact an athlete’s ability to improve their performance. For instance, we found that standing as opposed to sitting, had an impact on an athlete’s ability to improve at training over 15 sessions.

The mental resources involved with balance and proprioception for standing, were clearly inhibiting these athletes’ capacity to perform and adapt at a cognitive level. This is quite remarkable given that the mental resources involved are very low-level compared to sports play.

By training and measuring the cognitive threshold of these athletes, we realized for the first time, how mind and body functions are very sensitively connected. It demonstrated just how useful neuroscience tools could be for understanding athletic abilities at new levels.

Pushing the Mental Threshold

Our early findings were then explored more in depth in another study with Olympic-level athletes at the Catalan High Performance Center in Barcelona. A 26 session NeuroTracker program was used on a selection of athletes from multiple sports. The program progressed from sitting, to standing, to a reasonably difficult balance task.

After 14 initial seated sessions (6 mins each), standing was performed and NeuroTracker scores were reduced. It’s important to note, however, that the athletes’ learning curves were only temporarily affected when the task changed from sitting to standing. In fact, the athletes rapidly adapted back to their NeuroTracker performance at the expected learning rate.

Similarly, when we added a third more difficult balance task, there was again an initial impact on NeuroTracker scores followed by rapid improvements (within 6 training sessions). This revealed just how critical learning methodology can be. With the correct training load over time, elite athletes can effectively overcome the challenges of motor-skills tasks while performing at different mental thresholds.

Evolving Cognitive Training

Over the years, I’ve also seen to what extent athletes can perform incredibly high levels of physical-cognitive tasks with longer term training. For example, evolving from high-speed treadmill skating while puck handling at NeuroTracker speeds triple the norm.

What’s remarkable is that despite the evolution to more challenging tasks, they maintained NeuroTracker scores beyond double the typical baseline for pro athletes. Consequently, what can appear as truly gifted performance levels may actually be attainable with a refined physical-cognitive training methodology.

Overcoming Cognitive Overload

In the sports science domain, enhancing performance through physical-cognitive training still remains relatively new ground. Traditionally, this is because there have been no significant training paradigms for simulating high cognitive loads experienced in high pressure competition moments.

Certainly in my mind, this has major implications for professional athletes, especially for safety. High-pressure moments of competitive play, for instance, often overload athletes on a mental level while motor-skill demands are also high. This leaves them vulnerable to sustaining an injury.

Minimizing Sports Injuries

Concussion occurrences in the NHL are a pertinent example. Research shows that NHL players are exceptionally vulnerable to being blind-sided when shooting or passing the puck. While only momentary, this acute point of both high mental and physical load is responsible for more than half of the mild traumatic brain injuries (mTBIs) in NHL games.

I suspect there is a similar pattern for collision-related injuries in any team sport. After all, players’ competitive instincts are inherently geared for exploiting opponents’ weaknesses.

I’ll explore this idea further in a follow-up article, where I discuss how a new study indicates that cognitive load is a critical factor in biomechanically-related injury risk. Surprisingly, this seems to be the case even when performing relatively simple movements. As a result, it has wide implications for risks in sports competitions.

New to NeuroTracker? Learn more from Professor Faubert's previous blog.

Professor Faubert Introduces NeuroTracker

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