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 [editor’s note: now called Versus], a relatively new performance brain-training system which utilizes EEG (electroencephalography) and neurofeedback. Originally a medical group founded in 2008, their 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 their chief science officer, Leslie Sherlin, Ph.D., 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.”
Then comes the fun part — devising a training based on your brain’s performance. Neurotopia
is establishing the largest brain databank of professional athletes in existence, which provides an abundance of successful strategies of brain performance. Says Sherlin, “What we know from the database is patterns, styles, and approaches and the types of behaviors that brains produce when they are successful. In terms of brain training, it’s never a one-size-fits-all situation. You could take two people in the same position in the same sport, but they come at it from a different place. Their style is very different.” Neurotopia meets the individual athlete where they are at that moment.
“Making your brain like Federer doesn’t make you play like him,” says Sherlin. “How does your brain work dynamically? How does an elite athlete’s brain work? Next step would be comparing your style to a style-group of elite athletes. There are thousands of patterns in the database. Which one’s closest to yours? When we know that, we ask how can we enhance certain characteristics to maximize the kind of approach you have.”
Sherlin deals with many professional football players. Recently he sat with a Division 1 football team, going over their profiles and describing what was going on in a certain athlete’s brain to create certain behaviors. “The athlete had no idea that his brain was controlling that experience, so it was an educational and insightful moment for him. He didn’t know that what was making things happen outside was happening inside his head.”
The Training Paradigm
There are four steps to Neurotopia’s brain training. The first step creates brain states. According to Sherlin, “Some people have a one-speed brain. They approach every problem the same way. Your brain should be doing something very different from when you’re at practice than when you’re in a match.” Step 1 teaches you how to make the different brain states — like focusing or calming down — happen in your brain.
The second step teaches you something called volitional control — how to switch between brain states. You learn how to decide what you need and then create that. Sherlin gives an example: “You need to know that when it’s a competition you naturally get overaroused, so you need to manage yourself and come in a little more chilled out. Since you know what chilled out feels like in your brain, you are able to put yourself in that state. So you feel in control.”
The third step teaches you how to intensify what you’ve learned in Steps 1 and 2, and the fourth step provides maintenance. Sherlin imparts, “Whether we’re an executive, a mom or an athlete, our environment calls us to react to it, and sometimes when we don’t purposefully thinkabout what’s the best approach here and just react to a situation, that may not be the best way to handle it, so we get into bad habits.” Maintenance is a process where we remember how to do it correctly by practicing over and over until it becomes automatic without thinking.