Is Cognitive Training The Next Frontier in Sports?

Measuring an athlete’s tangible abilities for performing under pressure could be as important as pure athletic ability

With the rise of sports tech companies like Catapult Sports, an assortment of different GPS player tracking devices and wearables are being used by sports leagues all over the world to better understand the physical capabilities and limitations of their players.

Things like speed, strength, size, endurance and workload are becoming easier to measure. Coaches gobble up the valuable information that can be used to improve an athlete’s fitness level, gauge injuries and stress fractures, offer methods on how to push potential.


The shift to quantitative analysis of so-called athlete intangibles — data previously unattainable before tracking devices provided empirical evidence – is replacing gut instinct and guesswork in sports.

Sports clubs are now highly calculated operations, built on the powerful backs of statistics and data analysis. And the growing desire for more intricate data collection is changing the world of sports.

As Dan Peterson of Sports are 80 Percent Mental reports, a company called Prophecy Sciences has developed a system to measure an athlete’s physiological responses, like heart rate, pupil dilation and skin conductance, while the subject plays computer games.

The ultimate goal of these physiological measurements is to test how well an athlete will perform under high-pressure situations.

At last year’s MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference at the “start-up trade show,” Bob Schafer, CEO of Prophecy Sciences, gave conference attendees the opportunity to have their “soft skills” measured.

Curious attendees sat in front of a computer equipped with an eye tracker. They wore a wrist sensor-band and fingertip sensors, along with an infrared sensing headset.

Once geared up, the volunteers spent a half hour playing a unique video game that recorded their physiological reactions to the game – which aroused a sense of competition and pressure, much like that of an actual sport.

Based on how users play the computer game, Prophecy Sciences can better understand and, most importantly, quantitatively measure how users (or athletes) would perform in pressure-packed situations.


“There is currently no good way to make concrete measurements about the ways that athletes strategize, make decisions, and respond in tough situations,” Schafer told 80 Percent Mental.

“Coaches, scouts, and trainers rely on observations and instinct, and everyone makes mistakes. We use neuroscience-based games and biometric signals to quantify the behaviors and biosignals that actually matter for predicting athletic performance.”

Putting a number on an athlete’s abstract qualities, such as their ability to execute under pressure, is a guessing game for coaches and scouts. But Schafer and Prophecy Sciences want to go beyond tracking past performances toward predicting the future.

Athlete analyzing and tracking technologies in sports today record and measure what those athletes have done in practices, games, training, the offseason, etc., all of which provide great data but all of those instances take place in the past.

Sure, you can measure a player’s 40-yard dash time at 4.3 seconds and project that he could be a strong offensive weapon based on pure speed. But how will he perform under pressure during a game and put that speed to use?


The answer to this question is what Prophecy Sciences is trying to solve for the coaches, scouts and front-office staff that have to sift through many athletes with 4.3 speed. After all, there are plenty of athletes in the world who can run faster or jump higher than 99.9% of the population but the key is to figure out which of those .1% perform the best under pressure.

Baselining an athlete’s composure and decision making under pressure is as important as having a starting point for physical training.

When an athlete is trying to build upper body strength and they start off benching 200 pounds they have an exact figure to build upon. Likewise, when an athlete scores at a certain level on the “skills under pressure” scale they have an immediate starting off point to improve upon.

This is where the value comes in for coaches who may like an athlete’s physical abilities but think he needs work in the mental department.

This idea of helping athlete’s grow and improve their “cognitive potential” should be extremely exciting for teams and players. Just imagine if teams could improve cognitive skills of a top physical athlete and make him a more controlled and cerebral player.

It is likely that the 1998 Chargers front office would’ve loved to find a way help Ryan Leaf get his mental game in order. Leaf had all of the physical gifts necessary to be an elite football player but he could never grasp the crucial mental side of the game like the player who was taken one pick before him with the number one overall pick, Peyton Manning.

Overall, it’s an exciting time to be witnessing this convergence of technology and sports. Leagues and franchises, hungry for all that compelling data, are investing heavily in gaining whatever edge they can. Burgeoning new scientific innovations are creating a new frontier in athletic competition.


This month, iQ explores new ways we use information to empower ourselves, the environment and people around us. We look at how data collected by everything from smartwatches to smart cities is leading to better living through big data.


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