Human Performance, Performance | Dec 16, 2019
In this latest column, Optios explains how neurofeedback and advanced neuroimaging can keep your players in the game for longer.

An article brought to you in association with our Partners Optios:

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Optios, formerly The Platypus Institute is a pioneering leader in the field of maximizing elite-level sports performance based on neurocognitive assessments and has extensive experience working with coaches and athletes. For more information click here.

“Success in golf depends less on strength of body than upon strength of mind,” legendary golfer Arnold Palmer once famously said.

Palmer is a role model for extending player viability. The American’s professional career (1954–2006) spanned six decades and he didn’t officially retire until he was 77.

What was Palmer’s secret to extending the longevity of his golf-playing career?

Long before ‘cognitive training’ and ‘neuroperformance’ became a part of the vernacular used by elite athletes, he understood the significance of optimizing an athlete’s brain function.

Decades ago, Palmer unwittingly summed up the importance of cognitive training in his oft-cited quote: “Golf is a game of inches. The most important are the six inches between your ears.”

Optios is currently conducting pioneering research on neurofeedback methods that can help golfers optimize ‘the six inches between their ears.’

The initial phase of this pilot study identified expert brain signatures during putting. Optios is exploring neurofeedback (NF) training for golfers that could elevate performance and extend the longevity of their careers.

Neurofeedback training can improve elite performance across a lifespan

There are many ways that neurofeedback and cognitive training can help extend the longevity of a player’s career, including:

  • Making players less vulnerable to a wide range of negative psychophysiological factors that impact short- and long-term peak performance.
  • Taming fight-or-flight stress responses and learning how to avoid ‘choking’ on game day when performance anxiety tends to skyrocket.
  • Fortifying a more even-keeled physiological response to performance stressors by reinforcing brain signatures associated with an ‘expert brain state’ that is associated with grace under pressure.

In 2018, Jeff Bervoci, author of Play On: The New Science of Elite Performance at Any Age, sat down with a reporter from the New York Times for a Q&A. Bervoci was asked, “What are some of the psychological differences between younger and older athletes?” He responded:

“We all know of athletes who have had emotional meltdowns or choked in a big game. It turns out that emotional consistency — the ability to not get too high when you win, and to not get too low when you lose — can be its own kind of skill. And it’s something that comes more naturally to older athletes. There’s research showing that their mastery over unwanted emotions is stronger. Older athletes are better able to keep strong, unwanted thoughts and emotions from affecting their performance.”

Of course, the million-dollar question remains: How can younger athletes extend peak performance and long-term viability so they stay in the game long enough to actually become those ‘older pro athletes’?

In most professional sports, players tend to achieve peak performance by age 26 or 27. Unfortunately, after reaching this zenith in their mid-20s, many athletes begin a rapid decline marked by significantly lower performance a year or two later and are often viewed as ‘over the hill’ by their 30th birthday.

During a recent Q&A about “The Future of Neurocognition in Performance Sport” at the Leaders Sport Performance Summit in London, Tom Nugent, who leads Optios’s Elite Performance Solutions (EPS) division said:

“20 or 30 years ago, the common belief was that the brain you were born with was the brain you’ll have for the rest of your life and that it couldn’t change. But recent improvements in technology, advancements in non-invasive brain imaging, and better data collection have shown that because of neuroplasticity, your brain is really similar to a muscle in that if you train it, you can improve it.

“We now know that you’re not stuck with the brain you were born with. Once we identify the brain areas that need the most improvement, we apply proven neuroperformance techniques and technologies to improve those capabilities. And people see results rather quickly.”

Advanced neuroimaging makes it possible to identify age-related brain changes

As Dr Steve Miller, who is the Executive Vice President of Innovation at Optios, explains, “Studies on the effects of aging on motor and cognitive performance show similar trends. Important performance metrics including reaction time, visual-spatial, and perceptual processing speed peak in the early- to mid-20’s with significantly lower performance by 30 years of age.”

According to Miller, these age-related changes are directly tied to the plasticity of the human brain. As Dr. Miller explains, “Brain Plasticity refers to the brain’s ability to change – for better or worse – across the lifespan. Recent advances in brain imaging allow us to track and monitor the neural correlates of elite-level performance metrics. It’s now possible to identify age-related changes in specific brain regions.”

“Our goal is to help elite performers think faster, with less effort, and to support playing faster. Optios is now able to identify reliable neural signatures for the brain networks associated with peak performance in athletes and other elite performers,” Miller said.

These functional neural sources can be imaged in real-time based on functional 3D-brain models. Through targeted neuroplasticity optimization, it’s possible to improve real-world performance in a few short weeks of focused and deliberate training.

Why is Tom Brady the poster boy for neuroperformance-based cognitive training?

“Today’s elite performers are working hard to leverage every new training technique to make it to the top,” Steve Miller says.  As an example, he points to athletes like Tom Brady, who was an early adopter and started using cognitive training programs in 2014.

In his 2017 book, The TB12 Method: How to Achieve a Lifetime of Sustained Peak Performance, Brady writes:

“The brain exercises I do start with the most basic building blocks of cognition — speed and attention — and move from there to higher brain function — for example, memory and decision-making. Even if at times they seem instinctual, most movements in sports are based on split-second decisions. For the best results, you need to quickly process the most complete and accurate information available. Faster brain speed lets me process and evaluate more information — and more accurate information is easier to store, manipulate, and retrieve, and also leads to better decision-making.”

Tom Brady hopes to play professional football until he’s 45. “I always said my mid-40s,” he told ESPN in May 2017. “Naturally that means around 45. If I get there and I still feel like I do today, I don’t see why I wouldn’t want to continue.”

For reference, the last three NFL seasons, Brady has earned over $100 million in contractually guaranteed income, when most of his peers have long been retired.

If anyone can defy the odds of age-related decline, Tom Brady’s track record suggests he can. Men’s Journal recently put Brady on the top of their list of “The 13 Most Incredible Athletes 40 and Over in Sports History.”

Younger athletes from a variety of different sports, who want to follow in Brady’s footsteps, are implementing cognitive brain training programs from an earlier age in an attempt to extend their viability. Harry Kane, who has been the captain of the England men’s national soccer team since 2018, is only in his mid-20s, but started following Brady’s advice to train his brain after learning about Brady’s approach a few years ago.

Kane scored six goals at last summer’s Fifa World Cup  in Russia and won the Golden Boot for being top scorer. He continues to succeed at the highest level as a soccer player and doesn’t show any signs of slowing down.

Mark Noonan, General Manager of the Elite Performance Solutions Division at Optios sums up how extending player viability fits into the bigger picture: “The two most important things in the life of an elite athlete are winning and being fairly compensated for their contributions.  A trained brain not only changes the game but extending the longevity of an athlete’s career can have a direct and significant impact on his or her career earnings.  Now, that is what I call a win-win.”

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