Rowers and runners describe a sense of euphoria; basketball players say the rim seemed wider; baseball players report perceiving time as moving in slow motion.
The ability to execute under pressure—to achieve an athletic flow state—is actually an amalgam of many mental processes. Just as the physical challenges for athletes are broken down into building blocks such as speed, power and agility, so too are the mental aspects of sports now being parsed into neural abilities that can be targeted. The next evolution of this field: neurohacking that delivers specific brain-body states optimized for individual sports and individual athletes. Dozens of new companies are springing up, offering a buffet of the latest neurocoaching methods.
HACK: 31% gains in power and 15% gains in endurance through transcranial direct-current stimulation—the delivery of a low, continuous electrical current to the brain through electrodes touching the scalp. The current raises the resting potential of motor cortex neurons, bringing them closer to their threshold potential and allowing the neurons to fire more readily, with less work. Also called the neural state of hyperplasticity, this approach may be the key to unlocking power, coordination and endurance. The result—after three weeks of training—is the learned capacity to collectively recruit all needed muscle groups with greater precision. This technology, developed from implants that detect and prevent epileptic seizures, is being used in training by athletes of all kinds—from golfers wanting to improve their putting to ski jumpers wanting to improve their launch from the ramp.
HACK: Neurofeedback technology measures brain wave activity and allows athletes to better understand how to control their mental states. This technology is becoming cheaper, easier to use and more mobile. Eventually, implantable sensors will provide unlimited, round-the-clock information on brain activity. With virtual reality goggles, an athlete will soon be able to simulate standing inside her mind, watching it function, while learning to better control emotion and cognition. In addition, with the use of mobile EEG readings, researchers will determine which mental states work best for individual sports activities. Eventually, coaches will be able to test brain wave activity before competition to determine which athletes are mentally prepared.
HACK: Macular carotenoids nutritional supplements. Zeaxanthin appears to influence many aspects of the central nervous system’s functions. These effects extend from optical filtering within the neural retina to improving the efficiency of well-established processing streams in the brain and motor systems (Bovier, 2014).
HACK: Stroboscopic glasses. In highspeed games, players have to make instantaneous decisions in reaction to only a glimpse of the action. Athletes learn to function with less information— resulting in improved reaction time, visual acuity and sense of timing. In a two-week study using professional hockey players, stroboscopic training showed an 18% improvement over a control group in specific on-ice skill tests.
New glasses, using similar techniques, will be developed to increase other visual abilities, including peripheral vision and multiple object tracking.
That improvement for on-ice skills for professional players is huge.
Duke University neuroscientist
Sleep is a real opportunity and a real need. Players finish an NBA game at 10 p.m., but they’re wired and pumped and really can’t get to sleep until 2 or 3 a.m. Which means the coach has to really question whether to schedule a real practice the next day; they want the players to get their 8 hours of sleep. Teams end up not really practicing much during the season. They don’t have the time.
Los Angeles Clippers owner
Sleep improves split-second decision-making ability by 4.3%. After four days of restricted sleep, athletes maximum bench press drops by 20 lb. The challenge is, athletes’ sleep is radically disrupted by night-before jitters and night-after muscle pain. In addition, athletes cross time zones weekly; and with varying game times, they have no set schedule for sleeping.
Current hack: Pro athletes and team trainers are increasingly experimenting with a variety of supplements, habits and changes in environment to maximize the benefits of restorative sleep. Last season, the San Jose Sharks were coached to swallow chamomile, lavender and tart cherry juice, a melatonin producer that also combats inflammation, as well as a variety of nutrients like zinc and magnesium thought to induce restorative sleep. Sharks players also learned how to create effective sleep environments by minimizing ultraviolet light and keeping their rooms quiet, dark and cool.
Future hack: Wearable devices today monitor whether an athlete is asleep, but they don’t alter the environment of a sleeper to enhance or extend sleep. New wearables will track both brainwave activity and body temperature, and then alter conditions to prolong sleep phases—especially the all important slow-wave sleep, when the body regenerates tissues by building bone and muscle.
Overall, there is growing interest in sleep from teams across all the leagues. It can have a significant impact on peak performance and overall health. In my opinion, it is one of the most untapped areas of sports performance.
Research fellow, UCSF Human Performance Center; sleep consultant, Golden State Warriors
Muscle memory is not in the muscles. It’s in the brain. Conventional wisdom wrongly characterizes strength as being solely powered by muscle function. But it’s also neural. “Learning” is accomplished both by improving motor neurons’ timing and through neurogenesis—growing new neural pathways. Consider the athlete who begins weight training; strength improvement occurs in the first two weeks, even though muscle growth isn’t much of a factor until the third week. It’s from brain learning, not muscle growth. Electrical stimulation of the neurons—tDCS—speeds up learning and improves neural drive.
CEO of Halo Neuroscience
IS IT NEURODOPING?
Research to map and optimize the brain of the individual athlete will become solid enough that sports organizations will turn their attention to the neurology of teamwork. In 20 years, coaches will routinely use neurological data to maximize team efficacy, cohesion and communication.
Do these new techniques—altering the wiring of the brain—violate the spirit of sports? Some scientists compare brain stimulation to carbo-loading ahead of an event.
“It piggybacks on the ability to learn. It’s not introducing something artificial into the body,” says Troy Taylor, high-performance director for the USSA.
Others are more skeptical. If any of these new neurohacks are shown to have long-term health consequences, then they will likely become regulated and increasingly banned. Similarly, if they prove so expensive that only rich athletes can avail themselves of the advantages, then the public and major regulatory bodies are also likely to raise objections.
Dylan Edwards, a neurophysiologist at Burke Medical Research Institute in White Plains, New York, worries that the availability of tDCS devices will tempt athletes to try “brain doping,” in part because there is no way to detect its use. “If this is real,” he says, “then absolutely the Olympics should be concerned about it.”