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Cousins had long been enjoying a good night at the FedExField in Landover when he stepped into the pocket and made an astute pre-snap read to spot the gap between the safeties as he fired the ball deep into the grateful arms of Crowder. It was instantaneous, yet the quarterback executed the play coolly, unhurriedly and with little concern for the frenzy in front of his eyes.
Cousins attributes his ability to find his focus and stay calm at those key moments to Neuropeak Pro. He started working with neuroscientist Dr Tim Royer, the Founder of Neuropeak Pro, while he was at Michigan State. Cousins knew he needed more than mere time in the weight room to progress. “I knew that to take my game to the next level, whether that be the NFL or just an elite player in college, I felt that I needed to take control of my mind,” he says when asked why he wanted to work with Dr Royer. “Neuropeak Pro manages to maximise the mental and emotional aspects of performance, which I think in turn actually maximises the physical.” The Leaders Performance Institute sat down with Dr Royer and Tim Bergsma, Neuropeak Pro’s Director of Business Development, to discuss how Neuropeak Pro’s brain training can improve concentration and recovery while preventing injury – all without recourse to pills.
Sustaining athlete health
The hectic playing schedules as well as the intense mental and physical demands of pro sport can place incredible strain on an athlete. “In sports leagues such as the NBA and the NFL, the travel schedules can compromise a player’s sleep, their circadian rhythm, which in turn reduces their ability to produce hormones such as testosterone and DHEA, which keeps them healthy and helps to prevent injury,” Bergsma tells the Leaders Performance Institute.
The theme is taken up by Dr Royer, who is an expert in the fields of biofeedback, neurofeedback and the concept autonomic nervous system optimisation, which can negate the need for meds. He begins with reference to a typical NBA player: “Testosterone is a common marker that they tend to relate to because they know it’s important and are aware that they cannot rely on anything synthetic. We measure testosterone levels in our athletes every month; we’re watching if they’re not training, we’re watching them in games. We’ve been measuring this for five years and usually by December, because of the travel schedule and sleep disruption, their level of testosterone is going to drop 20 or 30% by the time they hit the winter.
“They might come into the season with a high base level of testosterone but if they come into the campaign with a medium to low level, it’s going to drop off significantly,” he continues. “And it’s those guys that are really prone to injury and really fall off the map.
“So we’re constantly relaying things back to them, such as measurements of their HGH [human growth hormone] and testosterone and use these to demonstrate to them when their body is functioning correctly, recovering correctly, and not overwhelmed. We’ll tell them they can continue to produce hormones in this way, if they want to. Our systems allow your body to produce more testosterone naturally without having to rely on anything synthetic.”
Neuropeak Pro is a branch of the Neuropeak Brain Performance Center with a specific focus on organisations with a peak performance mindset. There is a team of 12 dedicated staff who will run around 6,000 sessions a year and will, in some cases, train clients to run sessions for their fellow employees.
Neuropeak Pro’s clients include the Orlando Magic on the East Coast and the Portland Trail Blazers on the West, as well as a variety of individual athletes including the aforementioned Cousins, the Detroit Pistons’ Tobias Harris and former LPGA Tour golf champion Tracy Hanson. Crucially, Neuropeak Pro’s brain training techniques can be performed both at home and on the road.
“We have staff with both Orlando and Portland who travel to all games with their physical training staff, so just as much training can take place on the road as at home,” says Bergsma. “We’re able to optimise the brain to help coach them through some circadian rhythm and sleep hygiene stages. A guy like Kirk, however, will do his own virtual training that allows him to interface with our team.”
Electricians of the brain and body
Dr Royer posits the idea that he and Neuropeak Pro are “electricians of the brain body”. He says: “The whole brain works off electricity. Your brain is working right now because neurons are firing and there’s electrical activity in your brain; it’s no different to a lightbulb in your office. There are frequencies of electrical activity that cause your brain to work, while every organ in your body is working off of electricity; your heart, when you get an EKG [electrocardiogram], when we actually look at the electrical activity in the heart; your digestive system; the pores of your skin.
He goes further in his explanation: “If I want to move my hand, that requires a signal from the left sensory motor strip in the brain that goes down the spinal cord and sends an electrical signal to my muscles for my muscles to work. We’re constantly reading these signals at Neuropeak Pro because they’re the ones that tell us what direction the brain and body are going over time.”
The autonomic nervous system
Neuropeak Pro uses a variety of techniques for measuring the signals sent from the brain. “The most common one is an EEG, an electroencephalogram, which reads electrical current in the brain,” says Dr Royer. “But we’re also using things to read electrical current in the heart; we’re reading how the adrenal system is pumping out adrenaline, which is based off electrical current; we’re measuring respiration, so the athletes wear breathing belts. This is important because about 80% of the energy you make comes from oxygen; everybody talks about nutrition and hydration, which are very important, but if you look at the overall scale of what provides you the most amount of energy, it’s oxygen and it’s probably the thing that most people are completely missing out on in sport.
If you look at the overall scale of what provides you the most amount of energy, it’s oxygen and it’s probably the thing that most people are completely missing out on in sport.
“It’s understanding that if you don’t regulate oxygen intake, you can have the greatest nutritional programme that you want, you can have all those other things in place, but you’re still going to fall short because oxygen is so important for managing stress and creating electricity.
“Then all this electricity we’re creating needs to be regulated because we don’t just get rid of it all at once; it needs to be worked out through the day and in the way we interact with the environment; we decide how much electricity we’re going to use at any given moment in time. So there’s a part of our nervous system that provides this constant interface with the environment through our senses to decide how much one needs at any one time.
“Part of our nervous system is called the autonomic nervous system, which is a regulator deciding, based on senses, what we need at any given moment in time. It has two extremes, which are referred to as ‘sympathetic’, which is fright and flight; that’s when we use massive amounts of electrical current; and ‘parasympathetic’, which is rest, digest and renew, and that’s when recovery happens; so it’s the spectrum of electrical current that defines how you’re going to behave in a certain situation.”
What would represent a sympathetic response? “If you stepped outside the office and saw a lion, your senses would send a signal to your autonomic nervous system to speed up. Your heartrate and breathing will suddenly speed up and other systems, such as the digestive system, are going to temporarily shut down. That’s good in the short term, you’ll have enough energy to evade danger, but you can’t stay in that mode very long, as you’ll become fatigued quickly; you don’t want to stay in the sympathetic.
And what is the opposite of fright and flight? “That’s parasympathetic and that’s where we do all our rest and recovery; so when you sleep at night your body, hopefully, doesn’t perceive any threats and it can go into a parasympathetic state where neurons are able to rejuvenate and you’re able to get the recovery you need. The key to excellent recovery is an autonomic nervous system that can downshift into parasympathetic as quickly as possible.”
Challenging the ‘flight and fright’ response
Effecting that downshift can be easier said than done. Athletes – indeed all humans – are hindered in a way that does not affect a zebra fleeing from the jaws of a lion. Dr Royer explains: “The zebra will return to a parasympathetic state comparatively quickly after the danger is averted. The problem humans have in this regard is a large frontal lobe of the brain, which other animals do not have. It has enabled us to develop as a species, but it can also put us in a lion-chasing situation when there’s no lion lurking.
The most elite athletes in the world are able to stay in this lower range regardless of the situation; for them, a five-foot putt is the same on their practice green as it is in the US Open; the free throw in the NBA finals is the same as in practice. Elite athletes have control of their autonomic nervous system.
“As humans we don’t always have to be in the present. This is an issue in sport all the time. In basketball, a guy who’s made free throws at 95% in practice now has to make the last two at the end of the game. It’s no longer a free throw; his brain starts to think about what if I miss this? I missed before in a big game and it cost us. All of a sudden it’s not about physical ability because the brain has moved into this psychological response; he’s in crisis mode, and he’s not able to perform as he should because his vision is changing; he’s becoming narrow in his vision; his hormones are pushing out adrenaline and he’s not able to stay in a balanced state. The athlete will make errors they don’t normally make.
“The brain normally operates at 16 cycles per second but when it sees a lion that jumps to 32 cycles. When I first started working with Kirk his brain would cycle at 25 or 26 cycles a second, even when he wasn’t playing. It was his natural baseline and we needed to get that down to 16 cycles.
“The most elite athletes in the world are able to stay in this lower range regardless of the situation; for them, a five-foot putt is the same on their practice green as it is in the US Open; the free throw in the NBA finals is the same as in practice. Elite athletes have control of their autonomic nervous system.”
How Neuropeak Pro works with athletes
So how does it work? Dr Royer describes a typical scenario: “So multiple guys will come into the brain room and sit in these comfortable chairs; at Portland we have six of these stations. We hook them up to the EEG and hook their heart up to the HRV monitor and we hook up their respiration rate. They’ll have a stack of DVDs beside them and they can choose whatever they want to watch and then we’ll start the movie. The movie will instantly pause if their brain is not in the right spot and then the image on the screen will shrink in size whenever their breathing is off.
“Last month at Portland we did close to 70 of these sessions; there are multiple sessions that usually take place about 30 minutes after practice; sometimes they’ll do them before practice too. The nice thing is that it’s not very invasive; they just need to watch the movie and let the technology do its thing.”
Dr Royer stresses that athletes need not be at one of these brain rooms to be able to use the technology. “We can send athletes a mobile unit,” he says. “It’s a laptop and some equipment that comes in a small case. This is what Kirk does; he has his own mobile unit and we taught him how to hook up the EEG, breathing and heartrate; and he’ll do it three times a week, even during the NFL season so that we can monitor what his brain is doing and we can tell when it’s getting more stressed.
“The other cool thing is that once athletes are able to control their brain we can go out on the court or the field with that. The technology is all Bluetooth, so we could be 100 feet away, have them with an EEG on their brains, and from that distance we can measure what the brain is doing when they’re playing.
“We can even set up the EEG through the Bluetooth sound system in the gym and the music will only play when the brain is in a parasympathetic mode; when they start to overthink the music will stop instantaneously.”
The importance of athlete feedback
Athlete feedback is an important part of the process and differences are usually noticeable after ten 30-40-minute sessions. “The first thing they usually say is that they’re falling asleep more easily, they’re dreaming more, and they’re feeling more refreshed in the morning,” observes Dr Royer. “The second thing they notice is a greater level of awareness, as if they’re able to shut out all the static. The third thing is that when the brain is going steady and the game is going fast, they feel as if everything is slowing down.”
Several seasons ago, Chris Kaman, a centre at the LA Clippers at the time, sensed that his concentration was off in both practice and games but was reluctant to resort to meds; he preferred to place his trust in Neuropeak Pro. “I soon noticed a big change on the court,” he says when asked on the subject. “I noticed an improvement in my focus and concentration; people started asking me what plays we were doing. I think my whole game saw a big improvement.”
Over time it becomes a process of refinement. “It’s about getting closer to that sweet spot and being able to maintain higher volumes of stress without getting to a fright-flight point,” says Dr Royer. “Kirk is a great example; initially the point was to get him in the range; so we got him in that range and the last few years have been more about getting that on a razor’s edge, that perfect sweet spot; he was in the range but we wanted him to be perfect.
“Stressors occur as the season progresses; we’re getting closer to the playoffs or we’ve had a couple of bad games that may in the past have moved you in this direction and now we have to work to bring you back down and keep you there, because there isn’t really a lion chasing you.”
Are some sports harder to work with than others? “In some cases it’s more influenced by the environment, but it also depends on the individual and how much stress you’re imposing,” replies Dr Royer. “It’s much easier to move an NFL player than an NBA player. The NFL player has a pretty predictable sleep-wake cycle; yes, they’re travelling, but they’re back home in their beds with a regimented, circadian rhythm; a hockey player is hard; baseball players are hard; golf players are not so bad; yes, they’re travelling but they’re on a similar routine.
“Other variables include medicine; if a player is taking a bunch of pills it can take a while to get them less dependent on those meds and get the brain to take over. IQ is significant, with highly intelligent people, who understand the data, they’re easier to move. But everyone moves because it’s a learning of a conditioning system.”
Hitting the sweet spot
Each athlete is unique but these sessions enable them to find the right technique to bring down their brain cycle and ultimately increase their awareness and decision-making. “It takes a lot of players two minutes to get back into the zone but then by teaching them different breathing techniques, different things they might try visualisation-wise,” says Dr Royer. “They start to get to a point where they can turn the music back on within ten seconds because they gain greater awareness. ‘I’m doing it again, aren’t I? Get back to that spot’ and they’ve learnt how to do it from sitting in the brain room.
Dr Royer believes that Neuropeak Pro brain training is more effective than other, more conventional treatments. “It’s not just meds. There’s a hole with sports psychology because what works for one person may not work with another,” he says. “You have to look at what’s actually happening in the brain to understand what’s calming this person down. It’s really fascinating to see how they learn. Usually they’ll come back to us with strategies like, hey, every time I close my eyes for a second the DVD starts playing again. OK, that’s interesting, so what does that tell you? It tells me that I need to cut out visual stimuli for a couple of seconds to allow my brain to calm down.”
He can point to tangible results: “We worked with a basketball player a few years ago who improved so much that he made the NBA All-Star team; but if you ever watched his games, at the free throw line, he was notorious for throwing the ball back to the referee after the official had thrown him the ball and they’d shake their heads. What he was trying to do was buy three seconds, two extra breaths, because he’s done it again and again and knows it takes him those few moments to get his brain into that zone; he’d developed this strategy.”
This level of mindfulness also paid off for Tracy Hanson when she was competing on the LPGA Tour. Having worked with Neuropeak Pro, she says: “As I’m hitting the point of action, as I look at the target for the last time, it’s an exhale; so my brain is in a relaxed state so that I can pull in all the information I need.”
Athletes crave the sense of being in the zone and it came more readily to Hanson after working with Dr Royer. “I think after learning how to breathe correctly and going through neurofeedback, the zone to me is now more normal than abnormal,” she adds. “Instead of trying to find the zone, I feel like I’m in the zone and recognising when I’m out of the zone.”
As athletes continue to turn to Neuropeak Pro’s pioneering brain training, Cousins is in no doubt that autonomic nervous system optimisation will be commonplace across elite sport within 15 or 20 years. He says: “You see over the past several years there’s the evolution of the weight room and how strength coaches have become commonplace. Now Neuropeak Pro and what we’re doing as far as breathing and EEG feedback, monitoring sleep and hormone levels; all these things are the next frontier.”
Want to talk to Dr Royer? Get in touch today.