Having competed as an NCAA Division I athlete, the gruelling hours of preparation, the mental state needed to succeed, and the ability to tune everything to be “in the zone” are not foreign to me. As a medical doctor and neuroscientist, it has been one of my missions to elucidate the underpinnings of what separates the good athletes from the best ones.
What actually makes a GOAT and can science make one?
This is what I have endeavoured myself to discover since my early work at the NASA Human Peak Performance Laboratories assisting astronauts in reducing their stress levels and improving performance in space. This was nascent technology three decades ago.
Today, measuring brain circuits tailored to specific sports, observing the brain during athletic activities, and optimizing brain circuits during performance tasks through artificial intelligence, cloud computing, and wearable neurotechnology are ubiquitous in the world of sports which should be embraced as additive rather than ignored, or shunned as disruptive.
And there are endless possibilities as we begin to consider the commercial applications and business potential of neurofeedback technology in numerous health practice areas and aiding athletes at all performance levels.
Internet-based neurotechnology can assist amateur and professional athletes to reach consistent levels of peak performance at will. The field of remote neurofeedback will lead this, by giving individuals a non-invasive and non-pharmaceutical method to change their brain waves while reinforcing optimal functioning when the brain waves are in equilibrium.
With neurofeedback, the brain’s functioning is continuously monitored through the register of brain waves. When the brain is showing appropriate brainwave patterns, the person is rewarded by visual or acoustic stimuli.
For example, a video starts playing or the character of a video game starts moving. With this feedback, the brain can start learning when it is performing at his best and even trains itself to improve performance. Depending on the targeted brain areas during the neurofeedback sessions, almost any function that is controlled can be optimized – including stress regulation, focus and attention, sleep, mood regulation, and even memory.
Through these efforts over the past three decades, tennis, football, golf, soccer, rugby, equestrian, baseball, and water athletes have sought our assistance with neurofeedback. The vast majority of these elite athletes are seeking improvement of their craft. Some have had injuries and others suffer from anxiety, and sometimes even substance abuse. All of these issues can be assisted with neurofeedback – an evidence-based modality for modifying brain activity, thus modifying behavior.
Here’s an example: A professional big wave surfer came to our clinic in Hawaii seeking to improve his competitive performance. Big wave surfing is a specific surfing discipline – the height of the wave must exceed 20 feet. This sport requires lightning-fast reflexes, cat-like agility, and Fonzie-type coolness under pressure.
The athlete reported that during free surf sessions he felt like he was a “soul surfer”. In surfing, a soul surfer is the name coined for an individual who is at one with the ocean, who knows where the waves are going to be, and simply flows like water during a session.
But this athlete also reported that as competitions approached, he would get increasingly nervous. He would not sleep and ended up performing poorly under pressure.
The first portion of his peak performance training was a scan of his brain. Think of a brain scan as similar to an onboard diagnostics reader for a car. That black box that mechanics have, which after hooking up to your car, indicates what is wrong with it.
His brain scan showed a well-performing brain with several features many top-tier athletes possess, including faster reflexes in the sensory motor cortex, and increased independence of the hemispheres.
On the scan, however, there was one area that was dysfunctional. When questioned about this area, the surfer shared that during a previous session on the water, his surfboard hit him in his head – exactly in that region (and he completely ignored it). He could recall his sleep changing after that accident and many of his performance issues formulated after that accident.
Essentially, his top-performing brain had a missing channel. Since he was already a peak performer, the injury was not noticed during normal activities. But when he competed in big wave competitions and needed to kick his brain into “overdrive”, the additional neuroresources were simply not available.
Since he was required to travel anywhere in the world at a moments notice depending on where the big waves were breaking, remote technology was the perfect fit. He was able to bring his brain gym with him anywhere around the world.
He completed a total of 40 hours of remote-based neurofeedback training. He worked on decreasing the abnormal fast brain waves in the area of the injury, hypothesized to be a source of the performance anxiety. He also increased the performance areas for reflexes and relaxation. During his brain training sessions he used point-of-view surf videos to help the specific mirror neurons involved in surfing.
During the next season, he went on to perform well, winning a competition and consequently gaining new corporate sponsors. And for individual freelance athletes, this is their gold and their very livelihood.
After that season, he wrote me a short note, “Mahalos Brah”.
This is just one example of the positive effects of using wearable neurotechnology in combination with cloud-based computing, which dates back to 2009. With current technology, a brain can be scanned and compared to thousands of brain profiles in a matter of minutes.
Although an expert still does the final analysis, artificial intelligence has transformed neuroscience and will drastically affect sports business and peak-performance seekers, and with that has come a new age of self-improvement and brain boosting.
Frederick “Freddy” Starr is a neuroscientist and the the founder and chief executive of Myneurva, a global developer artificial intelligence neurofeedback software