Up to a billion people around the world will be tuning in to the FIFA World Cup when it kicks off this Thursday. This event is the pinnacle of competitive soccer and athletes must be in their best shape, physically and mentally, to rise to the top. More than 10 players competing in this year's World Cup have a secret tool in their training arsenal — the NeuroTracker. Developed by neuroscientist Jocelyn Faubert at the Université de Montréal, it is a software program used by sports teams such as Manchester United and the NFL and NHL to train athletes' mental agility.
What makes an elite athlete? Exceptional dedication and superior physical ability, certainly, but world-leading neuroscientist Jocelyn Faubert and his team have discovered that for some sports, mental agility might be the most important thing separating the podium owners from the average folks.
Using an innovative product called the NeuroTracker — developed by Faubert at the Université de Montréal and commercialized by spin-off company CogniSens Inc. — researchers discovered that professional athletes excel at sports not just because of training and physical talent but because of a natural ability to quickly process information coming from multiple sources at the same time. “So in other words, the mental power of this population for dynamic scene tasks, which involve attention and focus — what we call intelligence values — is far superior,” says Faubert. The ability to process various stimuli and to react accordingly can be quite handy when you're, say, speeding down the rink, handling a puck and trying to avoid getting pushed into the boards at the same time.
The NeuroTracker is a software program with either a helmet-mounted display and a 65-inch 3-D television or a stereo projector connected to it. Athletes are shown several spheres on the screen. A certain number of the spheres turn a different colour, say green, for only a matter of seconds before going back to their original colour. The challenge for the athlete is to track those particular spheres as they move around the screen and successfully identify them when all of the spheres have stopped moving. If the athlete gets them all right, the program speeds up. If they make an error, the spheres slow down on the next turn. This exercise helps athletes process visual information more quickly, it increases their peripheral awareness, helps them simultaneously track multiple targets at once, read body movements effectively, maintain focus for a longer amount of time to boost attention in critical situations, and improves their situational awareness.
What Faubert and his team also confirmed using the NeuroTracker — is that the brain's neuroplasticity, or its ability to self-reorganize to increase performance based on functional demands — can be improved at any age. With his initial funding from the Canada Foundation for Innovation, Faubert built the initial NeuroTracker in 2001 for rehabilitation purposes, to test how well the aging brain could process complex visual information. For example, how quickly an elderly person could recognize someone walking towards them on a sidewalk, and step aside to avoid a collision.
The potential application of the tool on athletes was realized when the team used elite and amateur athletes as control groups. “What we were surprised about was that elite athletes had even more neural plasticity than the amateur ones, which led us to ask the fundamental question about athletic ability: What is it about their brains that makes them better athletes?” says Faubert. “We know what it is about their bodies. But what makes an elite athlete better than non-athletes that have the same physical ability? There's a lot of mental power we couldn't put our finger on.”
With their research discoveries in hand, what started out as a study of human behaviour in the context of healthy aging and rehabilitation turned into a commercially successful product in 2009 used by such elite sports teams as the Manchester United Football Club and more than a handful of NHL and NFL teams, the French Federation of Rugby and the Spain Olympic Club. Canadian short track speed skater Olivier Jean and alpine snowboarder Caroline Calvé, both competing at Sochi, trained on the NeuroTracker on a weekly basis. Users can see a 30 to 40 per cent and sometimes even a 100 per cent boost in mental performance levels after only 15 three- to five-minute sessions.
There are now 150 units being used around the world by athletes and other groups such as all special operations in the United States, including the Navy Seals and the Marines Special Operations. CogniSens can build on the NeuroTracker model depending on the clients' needs. For example, military subjects use the system to practice transferring and loading guns while getting instructions or messages from a commanding officer.
CogniSens offers five variations of the system and it is also used by a number of universities to assess concussion damage and as a preventative measure. “We might be able to help avoid hockey concussions caused by hits by using the system to increase an athlete's situational awareness,” says Faubert. “We think it helps an athlete anticipate hits. If a player is concentrating on the puck, he or she can still grab and process information from the side.”
Source: Malorie Bertrand, Canada Foundation for Innovation
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