9 April 2017

Measuring the Unmeasurable: The Final Frontier in Human Performance

Daniel Gallan  (@danielgallan)

Ground breaking work being done out of a UK based company is set to change the way we look at human performance forever. By measuring brain waves and mapping them against performances on the field or track, elite sport practitioners are on the verge of measuring the previously unmeasurable concepts such as form, mindset and psychological well-being of athletes.

 Cognisess's early work has primarily been with young motor racing drivers. Here, Lewis Hamilton of the Mercedes F1 team is in action.

Cognisess's early work has primarily been with young motor racing drivers. Here, Lewis Hamilton of the Mercedes F1 team is in action.

Throughout the years, technology has improved athletic performances across all sporting codes. From the introduction of composite tennis racquets and titanium golf clubs in 1980 and 1990 respectively, to advances in strength and conditioning and nutrition; men and women in lab coats have always helped elite athletes push the boundaries of performance.

Beyond overt performance on the track or field, a clearer understanding of data collected helps coaches and managers make refined decisions in their pursuit of perfection. Moneyball, marginal gains and other popular buzz terms have changed the way we look at sport as number crunching has been given the same status as lifting weights or running drills.  

However, certain variables have remained untouched by the impartial hand of science. Concepts like form, big match temperament and the mental state of the athlete have been left to the interpretation of the wise and experienced practitioner whose years in the game have sharpened the eye. Collect all the numbers you want, there is no measurement for the unmeasurable. At least, there wasn’t until now.

A new piece of technology, being developed by the British-based company Cognisess, measures how the brain processes information during athletic training to improve performance. Using an electroencephalogram (EEG) racing helmet, Cognisess is working with young drivers at Arden Motorsport and the Young Racing Driver Academy (YRDA) to collect live streaming of the driver’s brain waves to the pit crew to assess levels of concentration and states of mind.

For Jon Pitts, a high performance coach working on the project with experience in a number of different codes at the elite level, this could change the future of understanding a realm previously consigned to the abstract. “My overall mantra is that the brain is the central driver of performance,” Pitts says. “With this technology, we are gaining a better understanding of the brain and how it impacts behaviour in a competitive and highly stressful environment. This has the potential to be a real game changer.”

Because the information is being relayed back in real time, brain waves can be directly measured against what the driver is doing on the track and how the car is responding. Scientists can therefore directly correlate oversteering, throttle response, fast or slow lap times and mistakes on the track to the brain waves of the driver.

As a result, variables such as psychology and mental skills become far more tangible and scientists can integrate them with the more technical, tactical and physical components of performance.

So what potential does this technology have for other sports? According to Pitts, the only limitation right now is in the mechanics of the measuring device. “The possibilities are endless,” he says. “It made sense to start with motor racing as we can place the technology inside the helmet. We are branching out to other sports that wear protective head gear such as ice hockey, equestrian, cricket helmets and even scrumcaps in rugby. If we can safely position the technology without it being a burden to the athlete, we can blow open the way we understand performance.”

In a previous article, we unpacked the abstract nature of form which for Pitts is, “something that relies on the subconscious areas of the brain.” By understanding in real time which parts of the brain are active during spells of good form, Pitts explains that the athlete and coach will be able to condition the brain to return to states that optimise performance.

“In sport, the environment is never the same,” Pitts says. “The field is different, the opposition is different and the scoreboard is different. What isn’t different is the athlete in the centre of it. We’re getting to the nuts and bolts of helping athletes understand what their brain is doing when things are going well and when things are not going well.”

By using empirical data, Cognisess is taking out the guess work. They are actually measuring cognition, and while there is still room for intuition from both the athlete and coach, much of the abstract nous of the seasoned pro will no longer be left to interpretation.

So has there been resistance from coaches who pride themselves on understanding the feel of the sport without the intrusion of technology? “Absolutely, and that’s going to be our biggest challenge going forward,” Pitts admits. “Many coaches see themselves as psychologists, often quite rightly so, and may be sceptical having a machine tell them that they might be wrong in their assessment of the athlete’s mental state. But we’re no longer dabbling with theory. This is tangible black and white brain measurements during performance. Only a technophobe would not see the benefits.”

Pitts says that a large contributing factor behind coaching resistance is the language that permeates throughout elite sport. Commentators, journalists and pundits speak of form and accept that it is a real thing. However, as Pitts says, it is merely jargon for an as of yet unmeasurable state of brain functioning. Now with Cognisess, form can be measured.

“Technology has always served as a hole filler,” Pitts says. “What I mean is, whenever something is unknown or unachievable, technology steps in to solve the problem. This is what we’re doing. We’re plugging a gap in human performance that has existed since such a notion was first conceived. We’re looking with clarity for the first time how the brain works in relation to various activities. Therefore, we’re able to deal with the cause rather than the symptom.”

It is hard not to get overly excited with the work being done in Bath, Coginesess’s home in the UK. If athletes could see exactly what their brains were doing while playing at their best, the potential to train and tap into that heightened state could see performances elevated to exceptional levels. How many of the greatest chokes in sports history could have been avoided if an athlete was able to reset and find that goldilocks zone inside their head?

“We’re aware that the ultimate goal of any sports practitioner is to allow the athlete to take full control of their own performance,” Pitts says. “Once they cross the line, they need to be aware of their own mindset. We’re providing the tools to make more accurate and positive decisions.”

The possibilities are truly endless. For the first time in competitive sport, the unmeasurable is being measured. While still in its infancy, this technology has the potential to change the way athletes compete. High performance is on the cusp of something ground-breaking. Now, it’s just a waiting game to see who is able to implement these advancements to their advantage.

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