Professional sports teams are engaged in a profiling arms race to discover elite talent before their competitors. And for good reason too – high caliber athletes are pretty much worth their weight in gold these days. In sport of soccer, even transfer fees for players can reach in excess of $200m, with Barcelona F.C. paying $260m for Neymar last year. With those kinds of numbers, a hell of a lot of money can be made if talent can be spotted before it matures. For instance, during Cristiano Ronaldo’s rise to FIFA player of the year, Manchester United made a cool transfer profit of almost $130m.
For this reason professional sports teams in big leagues like the NFL, NHL and NBA are focusing on ever-younger age groups to find diamonds in the rough. Now it’s common to scout 8 to 9 year-old players with a view to being offered permanent places in their academies. Like in the movie Moneyball, where sabermetrics are used to discover hidden talents, sports team are always looking for new and more powerful scouting methods. But how do you predict the next sports star like Matt Ryan years in advance? Let’s take a look at some of the news ways clubs are seeking out athletic potential.
The traditional approach to spotting talent is full-time scouts who travel where ever needed to find players with promise. But this is now being augmented by all sorts of sports science-based assessments and the latest technologies. Computer vision, machine learning and other forms of AI algorithms are being used to analyze player performance statistics, game videos, and sensor data to identify talent that coaches and scouts might miss. Even motion tracking technology is used to measure factors such as acceleration and deceleration metrics during shuttle sprints.
In the NBA a technology called SportVU uses sophisticated statistical analysis of data collected from huge cameras that hang from the rafters in basketball arenas. These collect information at a rate of 25 times per second, following every movement of each player on the court, as well as the ball. The numbers are crunched on everything from how far each player has traveled during a game, to how many opportunities at a rebound they had.
The NFL and NHL combines are a hotbed for the latest tests to glean insights into potential for sporting excellence. This includes detailed medical assessments and batteries of physiological tests. However, in the past teams at the combines have also profiled athletes using NeuroTracker, in order to discover elite potential at the cognitive level.
As well as being used for recruitment, data from these baselines are being tracked against career progress from youth to adult age. In a few years’, and for the first time ever, it should provide insights into just how much advantage can be gained from a mental edge.
Similarly, US Soccer have collaborated with NeuroTracker and the Faubert Lab to assess thousands of young professional players. At annual assessments, hundreds of athletes are baselined per day, and the results are cross referenced with all other tests and demographic data.
In a large research project spanning years, data mining techniques are being utilized to discover what matters most during talent development. Early findings have indicated strong correlations between US Soccer scouts’ measure of potential talent, and NeuroTracker scores.
In a unique study with players in the NBA team Orlando Magic, NeuroTracker baselines were compared with on-court performance statistics over the course of a season. NeuroTracker scores turned to be a great predictor of which players performed better on the court, particularly for measures like assist ratios and turnovers. They also correlated with different levels of play for different court positions.
When it comes to competition, it’s traditionally difficult to predict when professional athletes have good days or bad days. This research showed that cognitive profiling could be a surprisingly powerful tool for deciding who makes the team each game, to improve a team’s performance over a season.
In a landmark study published in Nature Scientific Reports, hundreds of pro and collegiate team-sport athletes underwent 15 NeuroTracker sessions. The goal was to see if athletic success was a key determinant of mental performance.
The investigation showed that elite athletes in top NHL, EPL and Rugby teams, have superior cognitive capacities for perceiving complex and dynamic scenes. However, more importantly, it discovered for the first time that they also have much greater neuroplasticity, learning at far faster rates than amateurs.
The collegiate athletes also had brains better geared to adapting to the mental demands of NeuroTracker than non-athlete university students. These findings provide strong evidence that high-level cognitive abilities are a critical factor in determining an athlete’s career potential – separating the best from the rest.
Talent is incredibly important in sports, however it becomes meaningless in the face of serious injuries, which can wreck careers. For example, across one year in the EPL, injuries cost clubs over $200m in wages alone. In some revealing research by renown neuroscientist Professor Faubert of the University of Montreal, NeuroTracker was put to the test at predicting ACL injury risk.
Athletes from different sports performed a jump sequence, with detailed motion tracking recording their specific leg and hip kinematics. When the athletes performed the same jumps while doing NeuroTracker, subtle movement changes occurred in more than half of the participants. These revealed an increased susceptibility to ACL strain, which are common self-inflicted injuries caused by sub-optimal motor-skills.
This study used NeuroTracker to simulate the cognitive loads of sports performance. In this way it provided a kind of injury radar, differentiating those who can maintain movement skills under pressure, and those that can’t. Though specific to ACL injury, the same principle could apply to any sports injuries related to motor-skills influenced by cognitive loads.
As we have seen, neuroscience is now merging with sports science at an accelerating rate. It already looks to provide invaluable insights into the inherent abilities of sports stars, with much more to come. The good news is that technologies like NeuroTracker are affordable and practical to use for teams, coaches and athletes alike. We can expect to see cognitive assessments leading the way when it comes to predicting sports stars of the future.
If you’re interested into reading more on some of the NeuroTracker studies mentioned here, then also check out this blog.
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** NeuroTracker is used in various medical research and is currently undergoing regulatory approval processes. Until such approval is complete, NeuroTracker is not intended to be substituted for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment.**