A more sport-specific approach to athletic brain training

By Dan Peterson

Over the last week we’ve looked at some specific research and training programs that aim to train everything that happens inside an athlete’s head. At the University of Montreal we highlighted a program focused on a more general approach to cognitive training. We also looked at sports vision training and how it visual and perceptual-cognitive training differ.  The theory behind these types of training is that an athlete can train “general” skills, like motion tracking, general hand-eye coordination training, vision or reaction time training, and that the gains made from that training are then transferable to higher-order, more complex tasks, like hitting a baseball.

There are also research paradigms that stress that cognitive training programs will only work if they are true to the specific environment in which those skills will actually be used.  So if you want to train to make better decisions on a basketball court or a soccer field, you had better do training that has some fidelity what it’s like to actually play basketball or soccer. 

Some of the best research on these sport-specific training programs has been done by Peter Fadde, a professor at Southern Illinois University (full disclosure: we are proud to work with Peter as a consultant to our research efforts here at Axon).  Fadde has worked with the football team at Purdue University, as well as the baseball and tennis programs at Southern Illinois University.

Much of the research around these very sport and environment-specific training programs involve a training technique called “temporal occlusion”, which is the selective editing of video clips to provide a limited amount of visual information to the athlete.  For example, a training tool for baseball players might show a pitcher in his wind-up getting ready to release a pitch, but then the video would cut out at the moment the ball is released.  For a tennis player, it might show a player hitting a serve, but the video would cut out as soon as the racket makes contact with the ball.

For soccer, a training tool for goalies might look something like this: (warning, the video is boring and is two straight minutes of the same thing: watch one or two and you’ll get the picture)

The idea behind this kind of training is that it forces an athlete to focus on only the most relevant anticipatory cues, to look for the “tells” in body position and movement that give away what’s coming next.  Performance on tasks that use these techniques has also been found to reliably differentiate expert athletes from less experienced, less elite ones (here and here).  Fadde’s study on the use of temporal occlusion as a training tool for hitters even found that players who used the training program ended up with significantly better hitting performances from those who did not.

So in contrast to the more general approach, in the temporal occlusion studies we see a different model of training, one that is directly tied into the same kind of cognitive demands that are required on the field.  The advantages are obvious: the training is specific to the sport and its demands.

But it also has difficulties, in that it is much harder and more limiting to stick to specific sports scenarios.  Also, it is easier to create programs like these for “closed” situations, those in which there is a defined start and end point (e.g. a single baseball pitch, or tennis serve-and-return).  It is much more difficult for variable, situational sports like soccer or basketball, in which the court or field never really looks the same way twice in the course of a game.

Which is better? There is no real answer right now.  And the answer may not be as simple as an either/or choice.  There is still a lot struggle to be done by the researchers on the front lines.

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