Searching for Roger Federer’s Brain

When it comes time to step onto the tennis court, who wouldn’t want Roger Federer’s brain? Well, brain, yes, and other physical attributes, too, for sure. Like his footwork, his serve, his volley…Can you tell I’m obsessed? But since the brain is the command center driving the body’s performance, it’s a pretty good place to start. How the brain functions affects an athlete’s focus, reaction speed, motor movement, emotional reactivity, ability to mentally recover after an error, and even quality of sleep. When the brain functions well, i.e., efficiently, an athlete can perform better under pressure. Wasn’t it Yogi Berra who said, “Baseball is 90 percent physical—the other half is mental”?

We can practice our sprints, lunges, build up our aerobic capacity and strengthen our hip flexors, but how do we train our mind? How can we sharpen our focus, sustain concentration, shrug off the sting of mistakes more quickly and get ourselves into that “zone” the players talk about when they’re seeing the ball “big”?

Enter Neurotopia, a relatively new performance brain-training system which utilizes EEG (electroencephalography) and neurofeedback. Originally a medical group founded in 2008, Neurotopia’s research and development has led to partnerships with several sports teams (Arkansas Razorbacks, New York Red Bulls) as well as professional tennis players and golfers. And it’s even available for regular folks like you and me.

I spoke with Neurotopia’s chief science officer, Leslie Sherlin, PhD, to get the rundown. Initially, you sit in a chair while sensors are placed on your head. You then watch a video screen and take a simple test where you are asked to recognize signals and push buttons when you see them. The sensors read your brainwave patterns and create an EEG map of brain activity. “We take the EEG and we develop algorithms that will give us insight into things related to sports-performance functioning. It’s a bit of a tweak on the general concept of a traditional QEEG [quantitative electroencephalography]. We’re looking at specific areas of the brain and how those areas respond to an activation task.”


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