Dec. 11, 2014 -- Luke Kunin plays hockey for the elite U.S. National Under-17 Team, so he knows his way around the ice. He’s been skating and taking slap shots almost as long as he’s been walking. He trains hard -- on the rink, in the gym, and in front of a computer.
The 16-year-old added a 30-minute, twice-weekly workout for his brain two seasons ago.
He uses the Hockey IntelliGym, a brain-training program. It’s a type of video game intended to help players develop “hockey sense” -- the ability to focus, make fast, accurate decisions, and to anticipate moves on the ice.
“We get five or six different sessions in one lesson, based on different events you find on the ice, like power plays and penalty kills,” says Kunin, a native of St. Louis whose team is based in Ann Arbor, MI.
The program’s simplistic graphics are a far cry from hyper-realistic video games like the latest "Madden NFL" or "Call of Duty." But, its developers say, that stripped-down approach captures the essence of the game -- and teaches it.
Based on a program first used to enhance the skills of Israeli Air Force pilots, the Hockey IntelliGym has been used by USA Hockey since 2008. The organization’s web site claims the program boosts players’ goals and assists by an average of 42% in the first year.
“We see similar improvements to what we saw in the Air Force,” says Danny Dankner, CEO of Applied Cognitive Engineering, Inc. (ACE), the Israeli firm that developed the IntelliGym.
Kunin says he responds more quickly to situations on the ice since using the program. He sees and notices more.
“It’s helped me most with positioning in the defensive zone so that I’m facing the play and not just running around,” he says.
Beyond the Ice
At the University of California, Riverside, the baseball team tried a different brain-training program two seasons ago. Developed by psychology professor and researcher Aaron Seitz, PhD, and colleagues, the computer-based game was designed to sharpen batters’ vision. The team won four to five more games than expected in its 2013 season.
But Seitz is quick to point out that his program can’t take all the credit. Increased player confidence and other hard-to-measure factors were also likely at play. Seitz published his results in the journal Current Biology in February.
He describes the field of brain training, in sports and more broadly, as being in its infancy.
“Depending on the conversation I’m having, I either use the phrase ‘Wild West’ or 'alchemy,'” he says. “There’s a lot of controversy about what brain training actually does, but also a lot of future promise. We’re just beginning to understand it.”
Other companies are also trying to understand the concept of giving athletes brain-training tech to enhance performance. Axon Sports technology is used by elite teams such as the NCAA Division 1 Oregon Ducks. Montreal-based CogniSens Athletics has developed the NeuroTracker to improve athletes’ mental focus and ability to notice or understand things. The Retina Institute of Hawaii has teamed up with Nike to amplify athletes’ mental skills.
Brain training is also being tried as a way to prevent concussions. In May of this year, the Mayo Clinic Sports Medicine Center adopted the IntelliGym for its hockey-focused cognitive-therapy training program. Most hockey concussions result from hits that the player did not see coming. But if players can sharpen their awareness and related skills, they may better be able to stay out of harm’s way.
“It’s certainly early, but it will continue to grow and grow quite aggressively,” says Jason Sada, president of Axon Sports. “The body will remain the lead vehicle [in athletic training], but new developments are going to be around the brain.”
The companies are not limiting themselves to a single sport. IntelliGym at first developed its program for basketball players. The company is now working on soccer players, doing the bulk of its research in Europe. While Axon’s most advanced work has targeted football and baseball, it has begun efforts focusing on softball, soccer, volleyball, and basketball. In the U.K., the company is at work on rugby and cricket.
From Screen to Game
For brain training to prove valuable, what you practice on-screen must translate into measurable improvements in your game.
“It’s very critical that what we train the brain to do is transferable to the real world,” Sada says.
The authors of a study published in Nature in 2010 write that there’s little scientific evidence that brain training provides such benefits. And, according to a 2013 review of research on brain training, many studies of software-based brain-training programs were done or funded by the companies that developed them.Still, research such as Seitz’s has now begun to suggest that it may be useful. A 2012 PLoS One study, for example, found that a variety of vision-training techniques boosted the batting averages of the University of Cincinnati’s baseball team.
Seitz says the products available now -- as well as research to back their effectiveness -- are limited. To advance the field, that has to change.
“One part is creating something that works, the other is providing the evidence that it does,” he says. “We need improvement on both fronts.”
Doug Smith, who retired as Riverside’s head baseball coach this summer, likes the small improvements he saw his players make after they trained on Seitz’s program. They swung at fewer bad pitches, which meant more walks and more players on base.
“Our batting averages went up and our strike outs went down,” Smith says. “The guys who did the best at [Seitz’s program], the ones who were the most diligent, their numbers went up more than the other guys’.”
“For hitting, it helped me pick up the spin of the ball, know when it was coming, and what type of pitch it was,” says David Andriese, 23, a Riverside graduate who was drafted in June by the Pittsburgh Pirates. “And the earlier you know that, the better your chances of hitting it.”
Smith says he doesn’t expect brain training to radically improve a player’s performance, but he believes such programs will become an integral part of player development.
“They’re going to take a foothold in our game, and the guys that use them well will reap the benefits,” he says. “Any chance you get to get a little edge, you take it.”