Systems that assess and train decision-making skills have been developed by a startup supported by FAPESP and tested on athletes belonging to top-tier Brazilian sports clubs. The researchers responsible say the technology can also be used in sectors such as healthcare (Virtual reality is one of the technologies used in this methodology for training athletes’ cognitive skills / image: Sensorial Sports)

Cognitive training methodology can improve athletes’ performance

08 de outubro de 2019

By Elton Alisson  |  Agência FAPESP – An athlete’s ability to make sound decisions and to do so quickly is now the key factor for winning a competition, according to Caio Margarido Moreira, a biologist with a PhD in behavior and cognition from the University of Göttingen in Germany.

To help athletes make better decisions more quickly, Moreira worked with a neuroscientist and a psychologist on developing interactive computational methods designed to assess and train their cognitive skills. The project was supported by FAPESP’s Innovative Research in Small Business Program (PIPE).

The threesome founded a startup called Sensorial Sports and incubated it at the Supera Innovation and Technology Park in Ribeirão Preto, São Paulo State, Brazil. Systems developed by the startup are already operating in top-tier soccer clubs, such as Palmeiras, the current Brazilian champion.

“We use neuroscience and technology to augment and enhance the athlete’s cognitive performance, starting from the premise that an athlete whose cognitive skills are monitored and trained becomes more precise, faster, and less error-prone,” Moreira told Agência FAPESP.

While most people make between 2,000 and 3,000 decisions per day, he added, a soccer player has to make approximately 6,000 during a 90-minute match. Lack of concentration and wrong decisions can limit a player’s performance.

“Athletes are increasingly similar in terms of physical performance. What determines whether they’re winners is their performance in making the thousands of decisions involved in a competitive setting,” Moreira said.

The computational platform developed by the startup, which is a member of Microsoft’s Global Sports Innovation Center, measures reaction time, the use of peripheral vision, attention, impulse control, and decision-making agility in response to different visual stimuli. It is capable of monitoring up to 12 athletes simultaneously. The sequence of stimuli can be viewed on a computer or TV screen or using virtual reality (VR) goggles and a projector.

The athlete’s performance is compared with those of others, both professionals and amateurs, in various sports and at different stages of development. These benchmark athletes have been previously tested, and their assessments are part of the startup’s database.

The athlete’s main potentialities are then estimated, and a target for improvement is set.

The startup has developed a VR system called NeuroSports Arena, which can be used to train skills such as concentration, reaction speed, decision making and motion perception, helping athletes achieve their targets.

“We’re developing a smartphone app for use by coaches to create a sequence of stimuli, to associate each stimulus with a desired action, and to train cognitive, physical and technical skills in an integrated manner during warmup or practice,” Moreira said.

“We’re also developing a cognitive training touch screen methodology whereby athletes are given a series of tasks designed to exercise and activate the brain in preparation for a competition.”

Assessment of athletes

The system was evaluated for a group of Palmeiras under-17 soccer players as well as under-15 and under-19 female volleyball players belonging to the Barueri Sports Club in São Paulo State.

The results of the analysis showed a 14% improvement in the level of attention for the soccer players after five weeks of training and a 20% increase in the number of offensive actions compared with groups that had not used the system.

In the case of the volleyball players, attention improved 10% and reaction time 13% compared with players who had not taken the cognitive training course.

“We found that the more the volleyball players improved in reassessments of their cognitive skills, the better they performed in matches,” Moreira said.

To date, the startup has assessed 900 athletes in 22 sports. The researchers are now analyzing the best Brazilian athletes in sports such as tennis.

“The possibility of assessing the cognitive skills of high-performance athletes before and after a competition will enable us to create new technological solutions,” Moreira said.

The researchers plan to offer the system to other markets where decision making is a critical factor, such as fitness centers, manufacturing, investment funds and healthcare.