Athletic Performance: Brain Gain

Brain Gain: Accelerating Mental Performance

The human brain is a funny organ. Not like ha-ha funny, but weird funny. The average adult human brain weighs in at about 3 pounds, with a length of around 6 inches. Packed into that mass atop your spinal cord are about 100 billion neurons, which when charged with electrical and chemical signals
are responsible for your thoughts and what you perceive as consciousness, even dreams. Oddly, the human brain also consumes about 20 percent of the body’s total energy budget, despite representing only 2 percent of the body’s overall mass. It’s a monster of performance.

Here’s the real mind-blower though. You may want to sit down for this one.

Humans do not directly experience physical reality. Instead, humans experience physical reality through the intermediary of their senses, which are inextricably linked to their brains. If I hand you a football and you try to “experience” the football, you’ll note that its pebbled surface feels dimpled in areas, that its shape is basically round but not in every direction. We often fall into the trap of thinking that it’s our hands feeling the football. It’s not. It’s our brains interpreting electrical signals sent from nerves in the tips of our fingers. Without the brain to interpret it, there is no sense of touch.

As you examine the football, you may notice that it’s brown and roughly 11 inches long, maybe about 1 pound. If it’s new, you may still be able to smell the chemical signatures left behind by the manufacturer. Sight and smell operate in the same manner as touch. Your eyes are consuming light waves and sending signals to the brain, where your brain is interpreting that object in your hand as “football.” Your olfactory apparatus collects “smell” data through chemical receptors, then relays nerve impulses to the brain. The pattern of those impulses generates the sensations of specific odors. All of those experiences happened in your brain, which fed your waking self the information it received through its sensory systems touch, smell, sight. You didn’t directly experience the football, at least not in the sense that you’ve become accustomed to thinking about it. Rather, your brain gathered data produced by external stimuli through highly sensitive tissues and organs, organized that information into recognizable patterns, and relayed to the entity you think of as yourself conclusions that when piled atop one another combine to form what you experience as moment-to-moment reality.

Pretty neat trick, huh? We still don’t understand how much of it works, but what we do understand is that because of their flexibility — something called neuroplasticity — the brain and nervous system can be trained and optimized using tools and modalities, the same way that strength coaches help train athletes’ musculoskeletal frameworks for high-performance activities.

Dr. David Boynton, DC, has spent his life in sports. He is currently team chiropractor and performance director for the Penticton Vees Junior A hockey team in Penticton, British Columbia, a club team responsible for sending numerous players to the NHL. He’s also worked with international cycling teams, and recently completed a functional neurology fellowship with the Interdisciplinary Association of Functional Neurosciences and Rehabilitation, with a focus on the study and treatment of concussion, performance and cognition.

The Binovi Touch is just one among many tools Boynton uses to train athlete brains. It uses lights embedded within a large, vertical board that accepts human
touch as input. The light flashes. Touch the light. Score a point. Behind that straightforward action, the Binovi Touch is improving visual performance in athletes, increasing visual memory, decreasing reaction times and improving eye-hand coordination. “Let’s say we want to improve your peripheral vision,” says Boynton.

Some of the best running backs in history have outstanding peripheral vision and depth perception. “We can give you drills where you have to keep your head still. You can’t move your head. You can’t move your eyes. When the board begins to light up, you need to move your hand and touch it, again move your hand and touch a different one in a different place.

“Now we’re going to slowly increase that distance from center. Things get tougher. You won’t be as fast or score as many targets in 30 seconds, but you’re working on quality here, not quantity. We have 25 different drills and peripheral vision is just one area we can target. The real magic is identifying an individual athlete’s limiting factor. Is it balance? Is it processing? Then, which drills do we use to activate those pathways that drive improvements? We can sniff those things out and drive plasticity to make them better, make them more efficient.”

Avoiding Paralysis With Analysis

Training the eyes seems like a pretty straightforward way to interact with the physical machinery of the brain to improve its performance. However, some methods for helping our minds evolve have more to do with changing how we think about the game.

Studying the data created by the game itself is one way to do this, with the ultimate goal of effectively training how we make decisions. The word used to encompass this approach in the world of football is “analytics,” but as with everything we experience, the reality of retraining your ability to think about the game can be far different from your expectations.

Anthony (AJ) Jones is vice president of EdjSports. He leads the design and development of all football analytics products from concept to release, including the design and development of EdjVarsity. He was coordinator of player development at UCLA — where he walked on to play wide receiver from 1987 to 1990 for UCLA football and wing from 1990 to 1992 for UCLA rugby, where he earned All- American honors in 1992 — and project coordinator for football operations for the Philadelphia Eagles.

For Jones, approaching the art of coaching through detailed analysis is how his brain best understands the game. In developing the EdjVarsity platform, he delivered a tool that high school coaches could use to integrate the concept of statistical and win probability into their decision-making framework. Beyond that, he helps coaches get “software reps” and become more mentally comfortable with not only analysis, but the sometimes counterintuitive advantages this type of thinking uncovers. He points at his Post-Game Report as crucial to helping coaches — and even sometimes athletes — get comfortable being uncomfortable.

“Luck is when opportunity meets preparation,” says Jones. “Ours is a tool coaches use to get coaching reps. I have NFL guys using it and watching high school games. I have college guys using it, watching NFL and high school games. I have high school coaches using it while watching college and NFL games. Just as much as we talk about players needing reps, coaches need to get reps with their own tools. There’s complexity to it, and if you can eliminate some of the complexity by becoming comfortable with the system, it can only benefit you.

“The beauty of a Post-Game Report is it’s a really good way to look back at what happened over the course of a game. We have every play charted, customized for the match-up, and based on individual game states. The beauty of being able to look at an entire game this way is in seeing which plays significantly contributed to win probability. Looking at things in the context of win probability — not just absolute yards gained or lost — changes how you think. The Post-Game Report identifies good decisions and bad decisions. Good decisions and proper execution increase win probability, which is obvious in any context. But you can now measure how much they improved your chances of winning on a percentage basis. That’s a big deal.”

Upon graduation from high school, Drew Sanders earned a four-year academic scholarship, attending Hardin-Simmons University, where he played football, coached and was named Academic All-Conference on three separate occasions.

Now head coach at Vandegrift (Texas) High School, Sanders has incorporated analytics tools from Championship Analytics to inform his own style of coaching, and he says there’s no doubt it’s changed the way he thinks about the game, and for the better. He has a much clearer understanding of what’s not only possible on the field at any given moment, but what’s probable for his program when specific decisions are made.

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“For myself and my staff, we have started to value the ‘non-emotional decision’ a lot more,” says Sanders. “Everybody on the sideline is emotionally invested in the game, and sometimes those emotions can override reason, when you feel like you should go for it on 4th down, even when the data says no. We’ve learned that maybe we should listen to this non-emotional thought process, as opposed to just disregarding what the math says. The data becomes a voice that is not emotional at all. It’s great to have that voice of reason there. It’s one more voice and it doesn’t use emotion to make decisions. It really matters and it has definitely changed how we think about decisions.”

Knowing Your Players

Over the course of working with players for four or five years, coaches at the high school and college level earn a subjective understanding of who their players are, what makes them tick, what gets them out of bed in the morning and every other personality quirk those athletes ultimately reveal.

Kingsley Osei-Asibey has created a tool that helps coaches apply objective measurement in player grading at a depth never before seen. Osei-Asibey occupies a space within the game that is truly unique. Not only does he hold a master’s degree in computer science, but he’s managed and maintained IT infrastructure for both the Chicago Bears and Tampa Bay Buccaneers. On top of that, in his most recent role before launching a tech startup, he was defensive analyst and director of analytics and football technology under Lovie Smith at the University of Illinois.

His player-grading platform — called Optimum Grading — leverages all of his experience in all of those roles to create a tool that forces coaches to think differently about the granular aspects of individual player performances, on a play-by-play basis. By scoring player performance on a percentage basis using attributes including alignment, assignment, technique, effort and point-of-attack  results, over time Optimum Grading gives coaches deep insight into where individual athletes are improving or struggling. Coaches can even use the tool to understand which unconventional players may succeed in unusual circumstances, thereby offering options to coaches on how to apply a player’s best attributes — traits that may not be readily apparent — to appropriate game situations.

“One of the reasons [Coach Smith] brought me into Illinois was to design something we could use to assess players,” he says. “There was no system that could do it. Pretty much every coach is doing his own thing. So I started looking at how we practice, how we game plan, how we identify post-game keys to success and failure. It came down to several attributes all players share: alignment, assignment, technique, effort, and the biggest element of them all, what does the player do at the point of attack?”

Osei-Asibey began building models to capture this data. Every coach with whom he discussed the concept loved it. He was heading down a path that would change how coaches thought about player preparedness and ability in specific circumstances, which is designed to evolve based on incrementally added data. It is designed to help coaches modify their own interpretations of player abilities and expose for that coach a competitive edge that was there all along, but was obscured from view because of traditional thinking.

Lenny Jankowski is a football coach who understands knowing his players, too. As head football coach for Vero Beach (Fla.) High School, he’d searched for a method to not only grade his players, but do it in a customizable manner. He’d heard about a platform called QwikCut from a coaching buddy, which is a video analysis platform designed to improve performance in games. It does that — in part — by capturing player grading over time and allowing coaches to filter that data based on whatever they’re thinking at the time.

“QwikCut lets me grade my players within the video platform,” says Jankowski. “I just go to each individual play and customize the player grading — plus or minus, one through five, categories, whatever it is. Then it keeps a tab for the game and breaks down your percentages, with a running tab for the season.”

As Jankowski heads into his 11th season at Vero Beach, he knows that he has tools at his fingertips that can change the way he sees his own players, and help him change the way he thinks about when and where to play them under different circumstances.

Learning Efficiency

For players who regularly self-identify as overworked, stressed out, even anxious or depressed in the face of those challenges — and for coaches who never have enough time to get it all done — perhaps changing the way one thinks will not only provide them with an athletic performance boost, but help them understand that change is nothing to fear.

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Will Thompson is head coach of Francis Scott Key (Md.) High School. He’s all-in on changing the way his players learn and his coaches teach, and he’s using an interesting little mobile device to nurture the progression.

Last fall, one of his friends in coaching mentioned the GoRout system, and Thompson did his research. Though the star of the GoRout show is the highly durable, wearable mobile device that players reference throughout practice, the goal of the entire GoRout platform is to increase efficiency. From practice scripting on the back end, to sending plays directly to players on the field, the platform is designed to dramatically increase the number of reps per practice.

“I think during one practice, we hit 80 reps and we were averaging 20 seconds per play,” says Thompson. “We end up getting a lot of different looks in practice, and it’s productive for us. We end up getting creative. We can do so much more without being verbal, which takes time. Everyone gets the message, and it’s the same message for everyone. The communication aspect of it has been great. In high school, some kids pay attention better than others. This helps us get the right information, the same information, and then we can execute on it.”

This article was written by Paul Markgraff, managing editor of AFCA Magazine and AFCA Insider.


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