02. Experts Corner

How Can New Developments In Cognitive Training Enhance Human Performance?

August 9, 2016

I’ve been in the game of human performance most of my life, and the quest to understand it has been a passion consuming decades of my own development as coach. I’d always integrated basic cognitive drills into training regimes, but it was actually after I joined Manchester United when it became clear that abilities coming from between the ears made the difference between top players and truly great ones. What surprised me was how little there was available to constructively train the cognitive components of performance. I was lucky enough to be funded to research new technologies, so I travelled to the University of Montreal to investigate NeuroTracker back when it was still just a lab technology only accessed by a handful of Canadian Olympians. After putting a plethora of professional athletes through well over 10,000 NeuroTracker sessions I certainly haven’t looked back – it’s part of all the coaching I do.

Things evolved a lot along the way. A key revelation was learning that you could find an athlete’s cognitive threshold, yet if they were well conditioned, you could then add on complex dual-tasks and they could adapt it, sometimes doing even better. When you think about truly exceptional performance, there’s always dynamic complexity with cognitive overload – it’s surpassing those boundaries which yields a definitive competitive advantage. So in simple terms, much of my coaching has evolved towards getting athletes to perform skill-relevant drills while under progressively greater cognitive loads. It’s not an all-in approach by any means, the finesse comes by firstly by isolating and training up cognitive and physical processes at a fundamental level, then by adding in complexity only when the athlete is ready to handle it. Otherwise you don’t get learning, just noise.

I founded Elite Lab a several years back so I could build a gym from the ground up centred on this methodology. It’s involved incorporating a lot of cognitive training technologies and as well basic equipment like pads, lights switches and even laser pointers. When integrated in combinations, you can achieve the goal of putting an athlete under pressure with a very flexible spectrum of difficulty – and that’s critical. An example of the difference this can make is the specialised program we undertook with Aaron Cook in Taekwondo. He came to me lacking the edge in competition, but responded to the training quickly, and amazingly well. This was confirmed to me when he knocked out the world champion in his weight-class with a round house kick, something rarely achievable in this sport. He hasn’t looked back since and is gunning for gold in Rio, going in as the favorite.

I think this is still just the beginning, technologies are evolving quickly, as is the science of performance. 10 years ago strength and conditioning was a fairly new idea in soccer, now it’s the bread and butter of any team’s training. I’m pretty sure we’re seeing a bigger revolution with the cognitive dimension.

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