Science & Technology Sports

Athletes can strengthen their brain to improve their performance

Scientists are finding new ways to improve a players performance, including the floating organ inside your head.

When we think of athletes, we might imagine physical attributes–shredded bodies, gigantic, biceps, blocky shoulders, and veins popping out through their arms and neck like the hulk. But being a top-level athlete isn’t just about conditioning the body; it’s also about conditioning the mind.

Neuroscience researchers have been able to apply their studies to help benefit athletes, whatever they’re trying to train. Ranging from performance improvement such as strength and fitness to developing better decision making and reactions to gain an edge over their opponent. Teams are also implementing neurological technology like electroencephalograms (EEG) to help evaluate their players to give them more of an understanding on what to work on, or even scout players not just by stats and performance, but how they think.

Neuroscience deals with how the nervous system works, is structured, develops, malfunctions, and how it can be changed. Neuroscience is applied in sports to help athletes learn skills faster and perfect their movements. While the nervous system extends throughout the body, the main target for neuroscientists in athletes is the neurons in the brain. Neurons are specialized for communication and use synapses — connections between neurons — which act as a pathway. These pathways are constantly re-wiring. Within these synapses, electrical or electrochemical signals are transmitted. A human brain contains one hundred billion neurons and one hundred trillion synapses.

The fact that the brain is always rewiring itself, means that it is dynamic and responds to changes and new needs. This is called neuroplasticity, but neuroplasticity decreases as people age. This makes it harder or slower to adjust and learn as we get older. This can also cause vision and memory problems. Theoretically, someone who is younger can retain more information, faster, than someone who is older. Techniques derived from neuroscience enables your brain to increase in plasticity, thus helping athletes improve motor-skills, reaction and decision-making faster, and even build on strength improvement.

It may seem hard to track the billions of neurons inside your head, but it’s simpler than you think. Teams evaluate a players brain using EEG, which shows changes of electrical activity in the brain. The athlete’s head is outfitted with small discs with thin wires — electrodes — connected to a computer to track activity.

More and more teams are diving into science and data collection. They use bio-metric trackers, usually applied to the body to see how a player is performing internally. But, some are also taking a look at an athlete’s brain. In an interview with CBC radio, Zach Schonbrun, author of The Performance Cortex, talks about how great professional athletes have “athletic genius.” Not only does a player needs to have great physical strength, a player has to be smart as sports are very complex. Zach makes a comparison between engineers and athletes: “We tend to think of the performers or the intellectuals who are engineering great buildings or composing great pieces of art, we tend to think of their intelligence and yet we don’t often think about the intelligence required to excel in a sport.”

Regarding evaluating a player’s intelligence, one common use is within baseball to examine a batter’s decisions on whether or not to swing on a pitch. The evaluation enables players to improve on plate discipline, and teams to make a baseline for scouting future players. Schonbrun had another interview with CBS Sports, where he emphasizes how “natural” the data-based approach is in baseball, which is comparatively easier to analyze than the dynamic, always moving style of play in hockey or basketball. Sports with more going on are harder to quantify. Take a point guard on a fast break: he’s reacting to the constantly changing position of 9 other people on the court. But at the plate a batter basically has a binary decision: swing or don’t swing. The use of EEG to examine reaction time can also be beneficial in sports like tennis and football.

A company called Halo Neuroscience is one of the first to develop this technology and be used by professional athletes. Halo has made headphones that apply small electrical pulses, researched from tDCS, to the motor cortex of your brain that controls movement, enabling neurons to fire faster and more often during training. The more neurons that fire together in your brain, the faster pathways form. Halo calls this hyperplasticity or hyperlearning. Halo is able to improve a skill, strength, and endurance with less repetitions. In a case study by Halo with the US Ski and Snowboard team, the group using the headset saw results show up 45% faster compared to otherwise identical training with a control group.

Halo is involved with 16 organizations and teams, including US Ski and Cycling team, San Francisco Giants, United States Navy, Sparta Science, and three universities: Illinois, North Carolina and Cincinnati. These groups helped Halo with case studies to see improvements. Their website also features testimonials from users. T.J Carrie, cornerback for the Cleveland Browns, claims to have added 6 inches to his vertical leap and 80 pounds on his body squat while using Halo Sport. San Francisco Giants sports specialist Geoff Head is quoted as saying that “there was an additional increase in testing results in the players who used Halo Sport as compared to players in the control group.” Ironman competitors, powerlifters, Crossfit competitors, golfers, and even gamers are cited as experiencing success with their product.

We are still in the early stages of sport neuroscience, and the claims of commercial companies should be taken with a grain of salt, but this highly competitive and results-driven context should be an effective proving ground for the field. The ability to improve a players performance and track a players performance may provide new breakthroughs for players and teams. There is more out in the neuroscience world, and in the coming years could see more developments come onto the scene for sports.

Image: Dr. Jank

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