Are we close to a breakthrough for training the athletic brain?

I think we are circling around something significant in training athletic performance.

It’s not a breakthrough physical training technique; it’s emerging from a number of stories and lectures on training the athletic brain.

Jonah Lehrer discussed the possibility in his April ESPN the Magazine article. Jonah nails it, as he usually does, by labeling the Wonderlic test for NFL hopefuls as a “completely wrong” way of evaluating talent. He opens up the question: how SHOULD talent be evaluated? And developed?

PBS covered the possibility of training the brain in its Peak Performance program. There, several scientists talked about the plasticity of the brain and how it changes with every event that happens to us.

At the MIT Sports Analytics Conference, Mark Verstegen made several comments about the brain and how it affects elite performance. He insisted that great performance comes from the subconscious brain. But we just don’t know how to train it yet. (start video at 16:30)

At the same conference, a couple of neuroscientists presented some cool ideas about increasing athletic expertise such as hand-eye coordination and prediction in chaos by directing changes in neuroplasticity.

And a website called Axon Potential just appeared and offers similar comments into this space. It defines the opportunity space well, but doesn’t provide solutions yet.

I think that in the middle of this scientific and market swirl, is a technology or solution that trains the brain efficiently and specifically. Right now, the solutions don’t quite get at the problem:

– The solutions out there today exercise the athlete’s cognitive ability. Some of these solutions are what I call “flashing light” games where you sit in front of a screen and react to random lights blinking around your peripheral vision. They have proven to improve your ability to see action out of the corner of your eye.

– Other solutions exercise your working memory and increase your ability to concentrate longer – valuable but not skill-specific

– Still others keep your brain nimble: soduko, word puzzles, teasers. These aren’t positioned to athletes but more toward seniors.

Do we know enough about the brain, can we see what’s going on inside the brain to train a specific skill? From this evidence, it looks like it’s possible and it might be really close to becoming real.

Exciting times.

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