02. Experts Corner

The Neurocognitive Sports Revolution is Coming!

March 24, 2021

The neurocognitive sports industry is still small, but growing fast. It’s growing for good reason, because neurocognitive training will revolutionize the ways in which coaches and athletes actualize their peak performance potential. Here I’ll cover the rising demands for this type of neural conditioning for sports, and why it's been so transformative in my own coaching practices with UFC fighters.

From Neuroscience to Fight Sports

Coming out of a brain-based leadership background with a post-doctorate neurobiology, I became a neurocognitive trainer for fight sports four years ago. Although I was a boxer in the US Marine Corps, I didn’t actually choose this path, it instead chose me. It was a pro-fighter preparing for a championship who reached out because of my neuroscience background, asking if I could work with him to enhance his mental performance.

From there I founded Neuro Peak Performance, in which we are totally dedicated to neurocognitive training for athletic performance. Since then, we’ve been blessed to work with some of the world’s best UFC fighters.

I think this speaks volumes about the professional sports industry in general, because today the brain is considered the most untapped resource in high-performance sports. However mental performance is kind of seen as an intangible phenomenon, where coaches and athletes generally don’t yet have the know-how or access to the neurotechnologies to really tap into this resource.

Sports Demands on the Athletic Brain

The human brain is really put to the test when it comes to sports. As an example, inside the octagon it’s well known that a fighter has to rely on plethora of key mental skills. These include critical abilities like perception span, target acquisition, go/no-go decision-making, impulse control and attack avoidance. In fight sports, these typically have to be put to use on millisecond time scales. Literally just one blink at the wrong time, and you got hit! So in fight sports, it’s not enough to just condition them, these skills need to be honed to a level high enough that automaticity is achieved – simply because there is often not enough time to consciously respond.

A split second changes everything inside the octagon

Then there are other factors like mental stamina, which is impacted directly by physical fatigue – a challenge most athletes are very familiar with. In combat sports in particular, there is also the very real fear of getting hurt, which threatens a fighter’s ability to perform. This is because when a fighter takes a big hit, their amygdala fires up, triggering primitive instincts to avoid getting hurt more. So neurocognitive combat skills don’t just need to be trained up, they need to be conditioned to the extent that they become hard-wired.

Even physical performance is driven neurobiologically, for instance virtually all motor-skills are commanded directly by the brain. Obviously there are many more factors involved, but essentially these neurovisual and cognitive abilities are all trainable. The modern-day challenge is that tried and tested methods to condition them are still unfamiliar to most performance specialists.

The Missing Link

Physical training like strength and conditioning, endurance and cardio have all proven to be important factors in conditioning athletic performance. However, what’s left out most of the time is how the brain handles the vast quantities of internal and external sensory information processing involved in all aspects of sports performance. This means that athletes are typically left to develop their mental capacities simply through exposure to competition experience, which runs counter to practically all other sports science-based training methodologies.

Neuro Peak Performance neurotechnologies

Of course, you could know all the neuroscience research there is to know, but without the right training tools it’s very difficult to put that knowledge to practical use. This is where neurotechnologies come in, which have only started to really develop over the last decade. That said, right now there are a lot of great tools already established on the market. From low-level electrical brain stimulation to EEG Neurofeedback, we try use make sure we combine the best of them in every training session we do at Neuro Peak Performance.

NeuroTracker – a Role Model Neurotechnology

From my own research and experience, I can say that there is one neurotechnology that really stands out. NeuroTracker is a 3D multiple object tracking software, and it has been the core function of all the training we do.

Neuro Peak Performance training of elite fighters with NeuroTracker

There are a number of good reasons for this.

Specificity Advantage - NeuroTracker is a beautiful piece of software in that there so many ways to use the programs. This allows us to take a unique approach in tailoring mental conditioning to each individual athlete we coach. Our fighters love that.

Neurocognitive Metrics – training on this technology requires integration of a whole range of high-level cognitive abilities that are directly relevant to real-world performance. This gives us a great measure of an athlete's integrated mental capacities, which we can compare against physical abilities. Then with the specificity of the software, we can assess things like subcomponents of attention. With detailed metrics on certain cognitive strengths and weakness, we can evolve an athlete’s training protocols accordingly.

Threshold Cognitive Loads – NeuroTracker’s adaptive algorithms excel at pushing an athlete to their mental limits. Firstly, this allows us to rapidly develop the neural circuitries that are critical to competition performance. Secondly, we can get fighters accustomed to the intense mental demands they face in fights, so that they are resilient under pressure, even if they don’t have the experience of a veteran fighter.

Dual-Task Methodologies – NeuroTracker works superbly when additional training tasks are integrated into sessions. For example, performing combat sequence drills at the same time as NeuroTracking, or with other neurotechnologies such as reactive decision-based training with light sensor motion detectors. This is a another reason why we can adapt the training very precisely to any athlete’s performance needs.

Neurocognitive Stamina – as research has shown with elite rugby players, this form of training can dramatically reduce loss of situational awareness that typically occurs in highly fatigued states. As the outcomes of sports competitions are generally won or lost when athletes hit the limits of their mental stamina, this type of conditioning offers a great competitive edge.

Wellness Intervention – when you work closely with fighters, you not only learn tremendous respect for their athletic prowess, but you also become aware of the unfortunate toll the sport can take on their mental health. With this method we can boost neuroplasticity and the brain’s ability to repair itself on a regular basis, as well as use NeuroTracker scores to monitor a fighter’s ongoing cognitive status.

For these reasons we implement NeuroTracker not only in every session, but also at frequent points throughout each session. This allows us to stimulate neural activation and the growth of a true performance mindset. It’s also an extremely flexible training tool. It would be great to see more neurotechnologies of this exemplary standard coming onto the market.

The Future is Now

As I said at the beginning, the sports neurocognitive industry is growing quickly, yet still relatively small. That said, the future of cognitive training is already here with the neurotechnologies now available. I see widespread adoption simply as a matter of time. Just like a strength and conditioning coach is essential for any professional athlete today, in the next five years, having a sports neurocognitive coach will likewise become standard for elite athletes. Ultimately the brain controls everything we do, and so conditioning it is essential for a competitive advantage.

If you'd like to learn more, here is a recent interview I did with the NeuroTracker team.

Lastly, if you're interested in knowing more about the cognitive demands involved in elite sports, here is an earlier Experts Corner blog I wrote.

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