02. Experts Corner

Can Cognitive Training Limit Sports Injury Risk?

June 1, 2017

Over the years, I’ve noticed to what extent cognitive abilities and physical motor-skills are sensitively connected. An athlete’s ability to perform cognitively, for example, will be impacted by small differences in motor skill loads e.g. standing versus sitting. Usually, we don’t give our motor skills too much thought and take everyday movements for granted.

These functions, however, involve the precise movement of muscles needed to perform a specific action. Simple actions such as tying our shoes or kicking a ball involve our motor skills. Nevertheless, one of my key findings suggested that systematic and incremental training could help athletes increase their cognitive threshold. In other words, that they could master complex motor skills (e.g. dribbling a ball) while under high-cognitive loads.

Cognitive Performance & Motor Skills

Conversely, I wondered if the opposite may be true. For instance, could cognitive performance impact motor skills? I first investigated this hypothesis through unpublished research with NHL players. This involved using sophisticated motion tracking analysis to measure puck handling performance while using NeuroTracker. The players in that study had not trained with NeuroTracker, but did have an initial performance baseline. In other words, a starting point that could be used to measure the effect of NeuroTracker on their cognitive performance.

The players were told to perform NeuroTracker at a level that was close to their “sitting” baseline while puck handling. We observed that the differences between puck handling alone, versus combined with NeuroTracker, were stark. Motion tracking patterns of the stick revealed that puck handling skill dropped considerably. Interestingly, the players seemed unaware of these effects.

Cognitive Load & Self-Sustained Injuries

Investigating my hypothesis led me to a pilot study, which aimed to explore the potential role of these cognitive load effects on self-sustained injuries. I conducted this study with a colleague of mine, David Labbé, who is an expert in biomechanics, and graduate students.

We focused on ACL (anterior cruciate ligament) injuries for two main reasons. First reason being is that it is one of the most commons sports injuries. In fact, approximately 200,000 of athletes in the United States are afflicted with an ACL tear or sprain annually. The second reason is that these types of injuries usually occur without contact with others. Evidence also shows that there is a relationship between athletes with lower levels of cognitive ability and an increased risk of ACL injury.

Measuring Movement Mechanics

In this particular study we tested college athletes in soccer, volleyball, and football.  They were each asked to perform 16 separate trials of two single-leg jumps (one forward hop, then one sideways jump to the opposite leg). Movement mechanics of each jump were measured precisely with force plates, and through motion capture of their legs and pelvis (using 36 markers).  NeuroTracker training was assigned randomly to half of the trials, with jumps performed during the tracking phase. We chose NeuroTracker as a controlled simulation of sports-related cognitive load. This is because we know that this task is relevant to athletic performance.

Analyzing Susceptibility to Injury

In all of the athletes, hip and knee kinematics (features or properties of motion) changed significantly while training with NeuroTracker, compared to just jumping alone.  Specifically, the largest effect was a change in knee abduction angle, resulting in increased strain on the ACL. This is not too surprising given that the ACL is usually torn during sports that involve sudden stops and changes in direction. The change in movement of the knee abduction angle occurred with 60% of the participants.

Our findings suggest that some people are more susceptible to these types of injuries than others. It also suggests that using NeuroTracker while performing certain jumping drills may be a valid method to identify these people. While only a pilot study, the findings indicate that cognitive load can directly affect motor-skill performance in ways that increase susceptibility to physical injuries.

Limiting Injury Risk

Our research involved athletes who were not trained on NeuroTracker. As a result, we are planning to do a follow-up study investigating if NeuroTracker training can reverse these types of injury risk factors. We’re hoping to accomplish this using similar motion-tracking assessments, which will be conducted before and after training.

If our hypothesis is valid, athletes could potentially use cognitive training to limit their risk of sustaining an injury. In this scenario, NeuroTracker would be especially relevant since it is a highly accessible intervention. In addition, data collected from thousands of athletes shows that NeuroTracker can yield large improvements within two to three hours of distributed training.

An effective cognitive intervention for injury prevention would generally improve health prospects for individuals taking part in sports. At the elite level, where injuries of top players are extremely costly, it would also provide a competitive edge. After all, elite teams know it’s much easier to prevent an injury than repair the damage after it has happened!

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