Originally published on cbc.ca/sports
The search for the next Lionel Messi or LeBron James may one day soon involve playing a video game.
In fact, in some ways, this virtual-reality future is already upon us.
While sports scientists have long studied the world’s top athletes, they are now using a mix of analytics and retro-like video games to test what some say is the next frontier in sports — the mind.
This unquenchable thirst for data, which in recent years has swallowed everything — from physical training to the price of beer at stadiums — has turned its sights towards digitizing the decision-making abilities of the great ones.
To crack these cognitive secrets, a billion-dollar brain-gaming industry has arisen, leading some to wonder whether kids should be shooting down aliens to hone their minds as readily as they hit the gym if they too are to enter the sporting heavens.
One such program, IntelliGym, was initially developed for Israeli fighter pilots. Bearing an uncanny resemblance to Asteroids — the old-school arcade favourite that pits players against an alien space fleet — this program is being used by top European soccer clubs to test and improve the spatial awareness of academy prospects.
In March, Jurrit Sanders, a sport scientist at Dutch club PSV Eindhoven, told the New York Times about these efforts. While the results aren’t conclusive, the club is sufficiently intrigued to push on after finding that “players who come in low on the tests tend to leave the club at a low level” and those that come high “tend to leave on a high level.”
On this side of the Atlantic, there are several sports franchises investing in a similar Canadian-based technology called NeuroTracker, including the NHL’s Pittsburgh Penguins and the NFL’s Atlanta Falcons. However, few have delved as deep as U.S. Soccer, which will soon wrap up a three-year study involving more than 10,000 elite prospects.
“What I can tell you,” says Jared Micklos director of the U.S. Soccer Development Academy, “is that [we] have certainly found a positive trend — elite athletes score better. But for now the point is to obtain data; soon we’ll start figuring out what it really says.”
One of the lingering doubts about the abilities of these programs revolves around what scientist call “transfer” — the idea that practice in one task will automatically carry over to success in another.
For former Canadian Olympic snowboarder Caroline Calvé, there is no debate.
“For me it’s a no-brainer. Of course it translates,” says Calvé, who after a disappointing finish at Vancouver 2010 saw her ranking jump from 20th to sixth in the world with the help of NeuroTracker. “If I’m on [the game] and lose my focus then — just like on the hill — my performance suffers.”
Matt Ryan, who recently quarterbacked the Falcons to the Super Bowl, echoes Calvé’s sentiment. Ryan, who uses NeuroTracker three times a week, told the New York Times: “Players spend a lot of time working on our bodies [but] it’s equally important to have our mind operating on a high level… That’s exactly what [this program] helps you do.”
Measuring these gains on a scientific level, however, is another matter, says Brian Christie, a neuroscientist with both the University of Victoria and University of British Columbia. The problem, in part, he says, is due to a series of intangibles (specifically the Hawthorne Effect):
“Let’s say you have a bunch of swimmers and right before the Olympics you give them new swimsuits — skin tight, they look good — which you say will decrease water resistance to make them faster. Even if these suits are nothing more than [a placebo], the team will do better, because they think they will do better.”
Killing the social game
Nevertheless, Christie does believe that cognitive devices like NeuroTracker can increase focus. So much so that he questions whether “NeuroTracker is completely aware of what they’ve got.”
After five years of studying the device, Christie says, the real beauty of this program may lie not with its on-field predictive ability, but with diagnosing concussions.
“Basically, across the board, at any age, you have a 40 per cent drop in your ability to do this [program] if you’re concussed. So [within minutes] you can tell, especially if you have a baseline, if an individual is impaired.”
Christie is further encouraged by tests on patients dealing with sub-clinical dementia.
“We actually have a group of aged individuals who are worried about cognitive decline and they are going crazy over this because they think it’s helping their bridge scores. I’m not sure yet if it’s the Hawthorne Effect but they’re killing it in their social game.”
For now, says Christie, it’s early days.
“As the research accumulates we’ll know where we go from here.”
So don’t press the reset button just yet — the machines may or may not be coming.