Defining The Athletic Brain

By Dan Peterson

Axon Sports is proud to be the cognitive training and protection partner of American Youth Football, the world’s largest football training organization. Recently, AYF asked our own Jason Cromer, lead cognitive neuroscienist at Axon, to describe what we call The Athletic Brain for their players and coaches.  The article below first appeared on the AYF site.

By Jason Cromer, Ph.D.

Yogi Berra may have been ahead of his time when he famously said, “Baseball is 90% mental and the other half is physical.”  For many sports, including football, an emphasis on cerebral skills is seen as the last frontier for performance improvement.  While traditional sport psychology focuses on the motivational side of the game, a new discipline known as cognitive training is adding another dimension to complete player preparation.

The Athletic BrainUnlike physical training, which has become a well-researched and followed discipline, the methods used for training a player’s brain have not evolved much past film study and a playbook’s X’s and O’s.  Today’s football practice needs to integrate the study of human perception and decision-making with the tactical side of play-calling and game-time execution.

This new set of skills can be collectively described as the “Athletic Brain”, consisting of six different components.  Three of these, pattern recognition, reaction/anticipation and high-speed decision-making describe a sequence that is constantly repeated during a game.  Players are presented with hundreds of visual scenarios that need to be seen, analyzed and acted upon in split seconds.

While this process is going on, a constant state of focus and emotional regulation is required to mentally stay in the game.  The final piece of the Athletic Brain is visualization which has been shown to improve skill development by activating the same neural pathways that are used when actually playing.

Similar to exercising muscles by sets of repetitions at increasing weights, the Athletic Brain also needs to be trained by drills that offer a high number of “mental reps.”  During a live football practice, players may only get a few dozen looks at an offense or defense, even less if they are not on the first team.  Studying film does not offer a first person point of view as seen from a player’s actual position on the field.

For example, great quarterbacks have the ability to not only see and recognize the distinct patterns of certain defenses but also how to react to them should they change quickly.

Chris Brown, expert analyst at SmartFootball.com, breaks down the essential tasks, “Teaching a quarterback where and when to throw a football is primarily a function of teaching two things: pre-snap reads and post-snap confirmation. Defenses get better every year at disguising their intentions, but they can still only disguise so much. Quarterbacks can still focus on specific areas and determine who the potential threats are. Then, once the play has begun, the quarterback must determine if his original diagnosis was correct.”

For players and coaches looking for the next competitive advantage, cognitive skills training will offer the ability to out-think their opponents.  Yogi would be proud.

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