The Athletic Brain

The brain of an expert athlete is different. Whether it’s picking up a curveball out of the pitcher’s hand or spotting an open man out of the corner of your eye, athletes have to be experts at taking in visual information, processing that information into manageable “chunks”, and then making rapid and precise high-speed decisions. Below are just a few of the cognitive skills that high-level sport performance demands:

High-Speed Decision Making:

Athletes on the field don’t have time to think deliberately. They have to react and make precise, high-speed decisions based on pattern recognition and a keen instinct honed by practice.

Pass or shoot? Swing or take the pitch? Athletes have to make this decision before they even know they are thinking about it, because conscious thought is too slow.

Right now, athletes build these skills through practice time and game experience. There are also ways to build this high-speed decision making ability off the field or court, through athletic brain training, to get reps without taxing the body. Axon is working on training tools that will speed up this learning process and accelerate the acquisition of athletic expertise.

Reaction and Anticipation:

The best athletes don’t necessarily have better eyes than their competition. Athletes who seem a step ahead are actually experts at picking up visual cues that help them anticipate and react to the game. They don’t see any more, or any better, they simply do more with the information that they receive.

A classic example of the way that vision is misunderstood comes from baseball. It is often said that great hitters can see the seams on a curveball as it travels toward the plate. But by the time a hitter can see the spin on a pitch, it’s too late, they have already made up their mind about whether to swing or not. Expert hitters can guess the pitch type without even seeing the ball leave the pitcher’s hand, and can read the pitch location after just a few feet of flight. In contrast, players in open-field sports like football or soccer have to train to recognize and be attuned to their peripheral visual field.

Spatial Reasoning:

A quarterback sitting in the pocket looks out on a sea of 3-dimensional chaos. He might have a rush coming after him in three directions, four receivers covered by defensive backs at four different depths, all while linebackers and safeties sit patiently, trying to read his eyes. Everybody is also moving at full speed, each in a different direction.

This entire scene is also going to look completely different to him in one second. Everything is moving, fast. He has to see, process and understand what’s going on now, and what’s going to happen next. There is a name for this skill: spatial reasoning. It is the ability to understand scenes in three-dimensions and it is essential to every sport. Whether it is a quarterback in the pocket, a point guard running a pick and roll, a soccer midfielder making a run or a hockey player anticipating a rebound, high-speed spatial reasoning is essential to what they do. Like other cognitive skills, spatial reasoning must be developed, and Axon Potential is working to develop sports-specific training programs for exactly these skills.

Focus and Emotional Regulation:

The importance of focus and emotional regulation in athletic performance can’t be underestimated. Performing in the clutch is all about tuning out the pressure, nerves, noise and distractions of the moment. But the ability to perform under pressure isn’t something an athlete is either born with or not. It’s a skill, one that can be learned.

Focus, or a state of relaxed concentration, is also something that can be seen with brain imaging techniques. Clutch free throw shooters and golfers have quiet brains; they really are calmer. You can measure and see the way that clutch performers’ brains behave differently from those of athletes who buckle under the pressure. Having a quiet brain allows highly trained skills to be executed automatically in situations where conscious thought would otherwise get in the way. At Axon Potential we are developing products that, through neurofeedback, will be able to help athletes attain an optimal brain state as they practice to perform.

Visualization and Imagination:

Mental rehearsal and visualization has consistently been found to enhance performance in competitive situations, and has been a cornerstone of the pre-competition preparation of elite athletes for years.  But recent research indicates that the the brain’s power to imagine and visualize may be underutilized as a tool to enhance and solidify the gains made in training.