What makes some athletes rise above the rest? Talent? Training? Physical attributes? Motivation?
It’s safe to say anyone who makes it to the pro level is well-equipped with all of these.
The standouts are the ones who perform well, consistently. Think the pitcher who thrills with a shut-out string of strikes, the point guard who rarely misses a fast break or the quarterback who always hits the receiver, well, almost always.
What they bring to their game is fierce focus. That’s their A game.
It’s called being in the zone, where muscle memory takes over for conscious thought and snap decisions are confidently made. What we don’t see is athletes bringing that same performance every time. A poor showing is deemed an “off day,” a very telling phrase.
And whether they bring it or not, when the game’s over, the stress of the adrenaline-fueled competition demands recovery.
Brain training to meet both needs is conducted by Dr. Tim Royer and his staff at Neurocore Brain Performance Centers, with six offices in Michigan and two in Florida. The approach is based on the reward system. We know it works. It’s how we train dogs and motivate ourselves. It’s how our society functions. We work, we get paid, and we spend some of it treating ourselves for working so hard.
Kirk Cousins, new starting quarterback for the Minnesota Vikings discovered Neurocore brain training during his senior season at Michigan State. He went pro with the Washington Redskins, but could never seem to find his footing.
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By October, he was benched and relegated to a scouting position. Cousins realized he already knew what he needed to do. A consultation with Dr. Royer revealed his brain may have been reaching optimum levels but was not getting a chance to recover. It kept running in high gear, releasing adrenaline, cortisol and other hormones when he didn’t need them. That scenario would keep him from getting a restful night’s sleep and put undue strain on his cardiovascular, respiratory, endocrine and immune systems.
The cycle would play out with Cousins’ compromised health and brain function putting him in panic mode when it was time to throw the football.
This is the same way our brains react during times of stress. Instinct provides us with a fight-or-flight response; a shot of hormones that helps us defend ourselves against predators. Obviously, most of us are not out hunting and running from wild animals. We’re not likely to be burning off that adrenaline and cortisol as the process is supposed to work. It is left coursing through our bodies, causing harm to cells and depleting the immune system.
What Cousins needed, and what anyone who has stress needs, is a way to put the brain in the optimum place – a sweet spot – for whatever is happening in the moment. When Cousins is on the field, he
doesn’t need an adrenaline “rush,” but controlled use of his body’s natural resources to provide him energy and focus. That is a function that his optimized brain can control.
Off the field, he needs to put his brain in a relaxed state as quickly as possible.
Unique from any of Neurocore’s centers is a “Brain Room,” tucked into the vast training facility of the Portland Trail Blazers basketball team. There, activity is in stark contrast to noisy workout rooms and practice courts. A lot is going on, but it’s all inside the heads of team members whose brains are learning how to control levels of electrical activity.
Like Cousins, their brain activity is analyzed and a custom plan devised. After that, a training session typically requires 30 minutes of relaxing in front of a video screen, watching a movie they enjoy. What they won’t be aware of is as many as 2,000 or more corrections their brain will make during that half-hour.
Unobtrusive EEG leads attached to the head monitor the brain’s electrical activity. A computer program knows where the trainees brain activity, as well as heart rate and breathing, needs to be for optimum function in their relaxed state. That translates to ultimate focus. If the player’s mind starts to wander, or they start thinking about too many other things, the computer signals the DVD player to stop. The brain wants the reward of continuing to watch the movie. It doesn’t take long for it to learn to relax and refocus. The pauses become blips that happen too fast to be noticeable. Yet, just like physical training, it requires regular practice to stay in top form.
For the Trail Blazers, the approach appeared to take them out of a major slump. They have since made the playoffs each season.
For Cousins, who can’t imagine playing without brain training in his workout regimen, Dr. Royer provided a portable system that he can use anywhere.
“I see brain training as that next big thing,” Cousins said. “I just want to maximize what I’ve got.”
He plans to do it quickly and make his mark on football before everyone else starts brain training, and the bar is raised yet again.
“If you look at weightlifting in the 1950s and ’60s, not every football player was lifting weights,” Cousins said.” They weren’t sure about the benefit it would give you. Now everybody has a strength coach, everyone lifts weights.”
Dr. Royer agrees, believing that consistent, improved performance by his clients will soon have other athletes and teams exploring what they are doing differently.
“These elite athletes aren’t just good athletically, they’re also very strong mentally,” he said. “And they’re going to perform no matter how much pressure you put them under. Why are they going to do that? Because they’re mentally prepared for that.