Cognitive Training for Athletes

By Dan Peterson

The past few posts have discussed ideas around deliberate practice, neuroplasticity and how they might relate to sport-specific performance training.  Here we’ll look at one specific place, the University of Montreal, and the programs that they are developing around cognitive training for sport.

Most of the research coming out of the University of Montreal in this area has been conducted by the Visual Perception and Psychophysics laboratory, which is run by professor Jocelyn Faubert.  The lab focuses on research around the human perceptual system: the ability to track moving objects, how the brain simultaneously integrates information from our different senses, and how we perceive motion.  And in the course of this research they have conducted some very interesting studies around athletes.

Via Medical News Today:

“Professor Jocelyn Faubert and postdoctoral student David Tinjust, put a dozen soccer, tennis and hockey players through multiple object-tracking exercises. The athletes’ capacity to absorb a lot of information simultaneously and manage it efficiently increased on average by 53 percent.

“In one of these exercises, subjects in the automatic virtual environment cave were asked to follow the increasingly rapid movements of a series of balls and identify those that quickly changed colour. After each training session, which lasted about an hour, results were recorded and athletes could note their progress. “It’s like physical training, but for the brain,” says Faubert.

“The approach has already gained great popularity among athletes, from star goalie Kim St-Pierre to North American boxing champion Anthonin Décarie.

“In their normal workouts, athletes regularly evaluate their physical performance, but until now there has been no tool that could rate their cognitive performance,” says Faubert. “If an athlete feels both physically and mentally ready, that can only have a positive influence on his or her performance.”

Video of the training, below:

This type of training, and the claims made about its ability to enhance sports performance, is interesting, but not uncontroversial. While it is easy to measure and demonstrate improvement that the athletes made on the specific task that they were training for, it is substantially more difficult to prove that those improvements are transferable.  The $64,000 question is always: does it show up on the field?

There is a lot of debate on this subject.  Other researchers in the field will argue that training must be much more sport-specific in order for the gains made in training to transfer.  And in our next post, we will look at some other cognitive workouts that approach the problem from a more realistic, specific perspective.

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27 Responses to Cognitive Training for Athletes

  1. Joaquin,

    This work points to exercises to improve working memory, a cognitive function. I’ve looked over the work that you referenced and tried to find evidence that these techniques can affect fundamental skills. Working memory is important, especially in terms of improving focus, concentration duration, but I do wonder if it can be expanded for specific athletic skills.


    • Joaquin says:

      That’s sort of the big question that a lot of researchers in the field of skill acquisition have about the types of general cognitive training programs that places like UMontreal are developing. Studies are being produced that show athletes improving on general, cognitive skills, but there has yet to be much hard evidence of transfer out of the lab and onto the field of play.

      Part of that is just that it is difficult to truly test whether an athletic skill has transferred. It’s tough to set up controlled experiments with elite athletes, and tougher still to prove that a training program is having a causative effect on performance. There are also researchers who just plain think that these general programs are the wrong way to go about training cognitive skills, and that the only true way to train is to simulate the actual competitive environment. I’m going to be covering a couple other approaches in the coming week.

      • Connor Williamson says:

        In my NON-EXPERT opinion, these type of visual recognition “games” are not very transferable to sports. This is almost like saying that playing call-of-duty will make me a better basketball player. While this idea/technology is great, it needs to be improved and developed much more specifically for each sport and individual scenarios. It does seem quite difficult to quantify the improvements that a player receives from participating in these studies with video games. That is the next step to solidifying this type of training in sports especially on the professional level. If someone could show that Derrick Rose and Chris Paul each decreased their turnovers by 1.5/game after a summer of using some type of VR training, that would change sports training as we know it. Maybe researchers should start on a smaller scale athletes such as high school/junior college in order to first prove the training works.

        • Joaquin says:

          I tend to agree with your skepticism. Something about them seems a little too abstract, on a gut level. Have you seen Intelligym? I’m no cognitive scientist, and haven’t seen any published research around the project, so I can’t draw any firm conclusions. But on a gut level, it just doesn’t smell right as something that will make you better at basketball.

          • Connor Williamson says:

            WOWWWW!!! this is too funny. My mom bought Intelligym for me when I was in high school! I was an avid video gamer AND an athlete and she was sold on the product. HOWEVER, after playing it a few hours I found little use for it as I felt I could get just as good experience playing other video games in my arsenal, so why play something as boring as intelligym! The game is basically like athletes (graphics are about on the same level haha) Very ironic that you brought that up!

          • Connor Williamson says:

            WOWWWW!!! this is too funny. My mom bought Intelligym for me when I was in high school! I was an avid video gamer AND an athlete and she was sold on the product. HOWEVER, after playing it a few hours I found little use for it as I felt I could get just as good experience playing other video games in my arsenal, so why play something as boring as intelligym! The game is basically like astroids (graphics are about on the same level haha) Very ironic that you brought that up!

          • Connor Williamson says:

            sry for the multiple posts… i accidentally put ATHLETES in the first post where I meant to say ASTEROIDS! haha apparently my cognitive skills need some work. Maybe that’s why I didn’t make the NBA…. hmmm…. :)

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