In this blog, we’ll look at how the future of sports could help keep athletes injury-free by finding out what’s going on in their brains.
In today’s ultra-competitive culture, pro athletes are pushed to train and perform throughout the year more than ever. This is generating an on-going tsunami of injuries. To take the English Premier League as an example, Manchester United's squad have suffered a massive 187 injuries during the last three seasons, costing them at least 74 million US dollars in wages. In the 2017 season alone, just 6 of the top EPL clubs accrued 15,268 days of player injuries.
Many of these include reoccurring injuries or knock effects from injuries post-rehabilitation. Even with large teams of top doctors, physios and sport scientists, injuries strike frequently and often unpredictably.
Traditionally, sports teams have only looked at the physiological dimension of injuries: what damage has been done to the body, and its state of repair. However, an experimental study on injury risk shows that cognitive factors may be a hidden, and critical aspect of injury risk.
Professor Faubert, of the Faubert Lab at the University of Montreal, had been interested in the symbiosis between cognitive and motor performance of elite athletes for many years. His research had discovered that the NeuroTracker Learning System could be used to apply an integrated neurophysical approach to training. With this methodology, athletes could improve their overall performance more rapidly with dual-task training (cognitive + motor-skills), compared to single-task training.
Surprisingly, this was only effective if athletes first consolidated their cognitive training. Another study showed that if dual-tasks were introduced too soon, learning rates would be reduced. This led to the concept that motor-skills can be sensitively affected by cognitive load.
This effect was seen in unpublished research with NHL players. The athletes performed puck handling at the same time as NeuroTracker. The differences between puck handling alone, versus combined with NeuroTracker, were large. Motion tracking patterns of the stick revealed that puck handling skill dropped considerably.
Interestingly, the players, who had no prior training on NeuroTracker, did not notice their physical skills dropping.
In fast-paced competitive sports play, cognitive overload is common. Professor Faubert hypothesized that this cognitive load could impair motor-skills under pressure, presenting a crucial factor for injury risk. To test the theory he assessed soccer, volleyball, and football players on a motor-skill drill which involved two single-leg jumps. These actions were chosen to apply pressure to the Anterior Cruciate Ligament (ACL). Approximately 200,000 of athletes in the United States are afflicted with an ACL tear or sprain each year. It’s both a common and problematic injury because it is usually self-inflicted, occurring without contact with others.
To record their movements he teamed up with an expert scientist in biomechanics. Using force plates and motion capture of 36 body points, they examined the movement nuances of each jump precisely.
In all of the athletes, hip and knee kinematics changed significantly while training with NeuroTracker, compared to just jumping alone. Specifically, the largest effect was a change in knee abduction angle. With 60% of the participants, this caused strain on the ACL directly associated with increased injury risk.
So when just performing the jumps alone, no movement problems. However, when jumping with cognitive load, susceptibility to injury was revealed. The findings suggest that some people are more prone to this type of injuries than others and that using NeuroTracker may be a valid method to identify them.
Though the focus of this particular study was specific to ACL injury risk, the concept of neurophysical loads may be valid to most types of injuries. As NeuroTracker is a cognitive assessment that can be combined flexibly with a whole range of motor-skill exercises, it could be a practical solution for testing the true rehabilitation status of specific injuries, as well as for assessing performance readiness.
Furthermore, NeuroTracker training rapidly enhances athletes’ cognitive bandwidth – providing an opportunity to pre-emptively reduce risks of injury. This is why Professor Faubert is planning to see is this is, in fact, the case,
“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.”
An effective cognitive intervention for injury prevention could change the face of modern sports as we know it, as well as helping athletes avoid the psychological stresses of being out of the game.
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