Keep Your Eye on the Balls to Become a Better Athlete

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MONTREAL — The acid-yellow spheres on the screen don’t look anything like the linebackers that the Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan tries to avoid each week. Nor do they resemble an English Premier League soccer player streaking down the field, or a puck hurtling across the ice in a National Hockey League game. If anything, they look like finely sheared tennis balls.

The beauty in the design of NeuroTracker — the video game aimed at heightening cognitive agility the way lifting dumbbells develops muscles — is allegedly its simplicity. Just by asking the eyes to track spheres as they bound around a 3D screen, athletes can prepare their brains to perform in a way that no other film room could replicate.

At least, that was Jocelyn Faubert’s goal when he created NeuroTracker out of his optometry research laboratory at the University of Montreal in 2009. He made it in the mold of Lumosity, the wildly successful brain-gaming app. Instead of targeting baby boomers, however, Faubert designed NeuroTracker for the sports arena.

Faubert calls these underappreciated cognitive skills the “gymnastics of the brain.” But until NeuroTracker, there had been little evidence of a good way to isolate and enhance those skills away from the practice field.

“It forces you to use certain networks — attention-based networks, memory networks, motion-processing networks,” Faubert said of NeuroTracker. “All of this simultaneous demand — that’s what you do in real life.”

Critics, however, call the program digital snake oil. They believe that sports teams, desperate to gain any edge, might be buying into a gimmick.

“I have to be extremely skeptical of any training program that promotes the development of these generic visual, perceptual, cognitive functions,” said A. Mark Williams, chairman of the department of health, kinesiology and recreation at the University of Utah.

Interactive Feature | Test Your Brain After clicking start, you’ll see 8 yellow balls, then two of them will be highlighted white. These are your targets — track them when they move. When the balls stop, select the original targets with your mouse. Try to reach higher speeds by getting the correct targets each time.

Still, the program has spread to more than 550 elite training facilities around the globe, representing a vast and diverse sporting landscape. Ryan, who is second in the N.F.L. in passing yards and touchdowns this season, said he trained with NeuroTracker at least three times a week.

“I use it all year-round,” said Ryan, a top contender for the N.F.L.’s most valuable player award this season.

Manchester United quietly spent $80,000 to install a NeuroTracker setup in its facility. U.S. Soccer has tested more than 7,000 youth players on it since 2014. The same program is used by hockey teams including the Vancouver Canucks, and by the IMG Academy, where football prospects train before the N.F.L. draft.

Athletes can play it while dribbling a basketball or standing on a balance board. Scores can be posted, promoting competition. There is nothing invasive or messy. With a pair of 3D glasses, players can practice anywhere: in the locker room, at home, in the car.

“We set ours up right next to the training room,” said Leonard Zaichkowsky, the former director of sports science for the Canucks. “Guys would try and sneak in and practice.”

As teams and players began to rouse to its potential, NeuroTracker’s applications seemed to stretch as far as the imagination could take them. Not only could it be a training tool for athletes in such disparate sports as taekwondo, speedskating and rugby, it was a concussion assessment device; a means to stem the effects of aging; an aid to children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder; a rehabilitation exercise for stroke patients. Independent studies piled on the claims. One found that NeuroTracker could be advantageous to doctors performing laparoscopic surgery.

NeuroTracker’s parent company, CogniSens, also just started selling a cloud-based, slightly different version of the program, called NuTrain, to regular consumers for $229 a year.

“It’s kind of crazy,” Faubert said. “We were addressing questions, asking certain things. And now it’s all over the world.”

But as it grew into a sort of performance panacea, the number of skeptics has grown, too, including those who point out that a carefully executed placebo might produce the same resounding reviews — only to suffer when the effect ultimately wears off.

The critics contend that it is the game’s simplicity that allows users to perceive results that might not always be there, filling the void the way a minimalist painting can inspire deep introspection.

They point to the fallibility of a simulation that boasts extraordinary benefits for elite quarterbacks, soccer midfielders and hockey goalies, players in distinct and unrelated sports. The incredulity is tied to the fissures in the foundation of the brain-gaming industry, which has faced mounting scrutiny about what many believe to be dubious claims, scant scientific evidence and deceptive marketing.

In seven years of expansion, NeuroTracker has grown into the most successful brain-training game in sports. But the fundamental question remains as present as ever: Does it really work?

Glowing Colors, Virtual Realities

One afternoon in October, Faubert pointed out the small room near his office that held the original NeuroTracker: a Cave Automatic Virtual Environment, known simply as the Cave. It was aptly named — the room was cool and dark, except for the lambent glow from a 9-foot by 9-foot projector screen at the distant end of a shadowy three-walled cubicle.

Faubert, who is 57 and bald, with dark, prominent eyebrows and white hair buzzed tightly at the sides, is an evergreen optimist with charismatic energy. His ability to distill expansive concepts into digestible bites is somewhat uncommon in neuroscience circles. So is his attire: bluejeans, suede jacket, thick leather boots.

His approach to answering complex questions about the human brain’s unique ability to handle a jumble of stimuli enveloping the senses was also uncommon. In 2001, as an optometrist studying the neuroscience of vision, he spent $800,000 building the Cave into an immersive, sense-engrossing environment for analyzing real behavior, incorporating gigantic projection systems and mirrors. Participants could move around, spend time, feel as if they are elsewhere — rudimentary virtual reality.

Faubert’s initial investigations involved questions related to peripheral vision, posture or balance. But he added spinoff programs, including a simple exercise featuring eight yellow spheres that was rooted in the multiple-object tracking experiments of the psychologists Zenon W. Pylyshyn and Ron W. Storm in the 1980s. With a few tweaks, and 3D glasses, Faubert thought the program might have some other scientific uses.

Motivated partly by his own curiosity, Faubert started asking athletes to visit the lab to try tracking the spheres. Among the earliest participants were Jennifer Heil, an Olympic skier, and Jean Pascal, a boxer. It turned out they were remarkably adept at following multiple objects at once.

When Faubert started seeing how quickly they improved at the game, he grew more intrigued. “That’s really the signature for me,” Faubert said. “It’s not so much where they start, it’s where they go.”

Eight numbered spheres bounce randomly around a cube, which the player sees through 3D glasses. At the outset, four of the spheres will glow red, indicating that those are the spheres to keep an eye on. But they will be red for only a second. Momentarily they turn yellow again, only to fall in with the other foils, all of them dispersing and colliding, like billiard balls sent scattering across a table.

After eight seconds, a prompt asks you to recall the numbers of the spheres that had once been red. It is no more intricate than a three-card shuffle performed on a street corner. But the task of following four fast-moving objects simultaneously is a remarkably rigorous test, challenging visual and perceptual capabilities, and such cognitive systems as spatial awareness, concentration and working memory.

Faubert increases the speed incrementally, intensifying how quickly the balls bounce, thus making them harder and more deceptive to follow. He has turned his program into a game: For each correct response, you can advance a level, intensifying the speed. When you respond incorrectly, you are demoted a level: The speed decelerates. At the end of an eight-minute trial, you are given a total score.

Jean Castonguay, a corporate lawyer with a background in managing start-ups, caught wind of it and saw a business opportunity. He offered to move the program out of the laboratory and into the marketplace. He incorporated CogniSens, found nearby office space, lined up customers and helped come up with a catchy name. (NeuroTracker was originally called 3D-MOT, for 3-dimensional multiple-object tracking; players on Manchester United called it “ball-tracker”).

Most teams were not willing to discuss their use of NeuroTracker — which has only one paid endorser, Aaron Cook, an Olympic taekwondo athlete — likely out of fear that their competitive advantage would be reduced. But the Atlanta Falcons were an exception, allowing Ryan to respond to questions.

The Pro Bowl quarterback, who personally visited the lab in June 2015, said that NeuroTracker had improved his spatial awareness, the type of vision needed to scan the field for open receivers.

“That’s key as a quarterback, to be able to see things and how they relate to each other really quickly,” Ryan said. “I think that’s exactly what NeuroTracker helps you do.”

He considered it as crucial to his performance as lifting weights or training agility.

“We spend a lot of time working on our bodies,” Ryan said. “It’s equally important to have your mind operating on a high level.”

In fact, with a professional setup costing $6,000, NeuroTracker boasts that in only 12 training sessions lasting five minutes, athletes will begin to notice sustainable benefits to their on-field performance.

“They will see it in their play,” said Castonguay, who is the lead investor in the company.

These supposed benefits have varied. One of the earliest customers was Zaichkowsky, a longtime sports psychologist at Boston University who was hired by the Vancouver Canucks to introduce a sports science program in July 2010. He persuaded the front office to set up a NeuroTracker cave in the practice facility, at a cost then of around $40,000.

“Conceptually and scientifically, it made a lot of sense,” said Zaichkowsky, now a member of CogniSens’ science board.

Matt Fast, a professional golfer, was hoping to improve a different type of sustained attention when he began using NeuroTracker on the Web.com tour in 2014. He felt that when he played the chaotic ball-tracking game in the morning, he putted significantly better later in the day.

“Everything would be blacked out except for what your eyes were looking at,” Fast said. “The times that I’ve putted the best were when I was using it. I totally believe in it.”

Some were intrigued by NeuroTracker’s potential for data collection and as a scouting tool, including Jared Micklos, the director of the U.S. Soccer Development Academy. In the fall of 2014, he signed a three-year agreement with the company to test NeuroTracker on youth players at the Development Academy combine in June and December. He said the data was beginning to generate some interesting revelations about differences among positions.

Now they can begin to track how players progressed from age 14 to 17, particularly those who have gone on to higher levels, like the national team.

“Is there a correlation of the score?” Micklos said. “Are these high scores? If that’s the case, then, yeah, continuing to test might make sense.”

Caroline Calvé, a Canadian snowboarder, said that if she had not retired last year she would still be using NeuroTracker. Before the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi, Russia, Calvé started using the program along with other mental-training products to help her concentration, which she said was a mess during the 2010 Games in Vancouver.

“It gave me the time to practice that focus,” Calvé said, adding: “It is tough to measure. It’s tough to say, ‘Is that why I did better? Is it because suddenly I felt I had more control so I gained more confidence?’ It’s so hard to tell.”

Whatever the motivation, however, Calvé could not argue with the results. She jumped from No. 20 in 2010 to No. 6 in the parallel giant slalom in 2014.

“The fact that I was practicing that focus was something that, yes, I feel helped me,” she said.

The Myth of the Cave?

When Nintendo started Brain Age in 2005 — a video game built around puzzles, testing nothing as it relates to Mario or Luigi, but rather the speed at which players could complete mental agility tasks like speed-counting, word memory and Sudoku — it was advertised as a method for “flexing your mental muscles.” It was based largely on the work of a renowned Japanese neuroscientist, and it sold well. A commercial race to bring cognitive-training applications into the mainstream ensued. By 2013, Lumosity, one of the most successful contenders, had reached 50 million members on the basis that playing its games could increase work or school performance.

But the notion that practice at one task could effectively bolster abilities in another — called transfer — has long been disputed. In 1906, the psychologist Edward L. Thorndike found that rigorous practice helped students’ ability to estimate the areas of rectangles, but it did not help them estimate the areas of other shapes. Another century’s worth of research has continued to reshape and redefine, expand and restrict this line of thinking. Sir Charles Sherrington, the Nobel Prize-winning neurophysiologist, also believed that “acquisition of a habit is not transferable beyond its application.” K. Anders Ericsson’s seminal study on expertise — the so-called 10,000 hours rule — emphasized training that was specific to the skill. This meant that memorizing an extraordinary amount of numbers is not likely to yield improvement in your recall of names. Practicing Tetris can improve your ability to play Tetris, but it probably won’t help you get better at juggling.

With NeuroTracker, Faubert has made some effort to rebut this, but not everybody has been persuaded. Mr. Williams, at the University of Utah, challenged the notion that tracking bouncing objects in a simulation could train or quantify anything other than a person’s ability to track bouncing objects in a simulation.

“I’ve never seen a soccer player chasing multicolor balloons around on the field,” Williams said. “It’s just not what soccer players do.”

What soccer players do, he said, is read patterns of play, anticipate what might happen next based on movements of teammates and opponents, and identify familiar sequences as they unfold. This “inside” knowledge, built up over time, promotes the effectiveness and efficiency that Ericsson argues are the hallmarks of expertise.

Williams is not alone in his skepticism. In an exhaustive review published in the October issue of the journal Psychological Science in the Public Interest, researchers criticized the sweeping claims made throughout the $1.3 billion brain-gaming industry related to “cognitive improvement.” The researchers concluded that the evidence was “limited and inconsistent” that commercial brain-training software could enhance cognition outside the laboratory in the ways the companies described. (Last January, Lumos Labs, the maker of Lumosity, settled Federal Trade Commission charges of deceptive advertising for $2 million.)

CogniSens was one of 30 companies that the lead author, Daniel J. Simons, used to support the study’s analysis, naming it as one of a dozen companies that cited no peer-reviewed evidence from intervention studies. Castonguay said he emailed Simons to explain that they had, in fact, published multiple studies supporting NeuroTracker’s work, but did not provide links on their website. (The website now lists 12 supporting papers and studies.)

One of the studies was a paper by Faubert in the January issue of Psychology of Sports and Exercise that described a significant improvement in passing accuracy among players on the University of Montreal’s men’s soccer team after just 10 sessions of NeuroTracker. Those judging the accuracy of the passes, however, were the coaches — a subjective method of evaluation, even if they were doing their best to be truthful.

Another often-cited study was conducted by researchers at the Institute of Exercise Physiology and Wellness at the University of Central Florida. Working with the Orlando Magic, they tested 12 players using NeuroTracker before the 2012-13 season and compared the results to their basketball statistics at the end of the year. They found that the players who scored better at NeuroTracker wound up with better numbers in assists and steals, and fewer turnovers.

The authors did not mention that the Magic had a new coach that season, Jacque Vaughn, who promoted a more aggressive, up-tempo style of play than his predecessor, Stan Van Gundy, which could have accounted for the statistical uptick.

Castonguay said it could be hard to get the sort of access needed for studies involving professional athletes. But, he said, “one thing is clear: We are the most evidence-based cognitive intervention in the world. No one comes close to us.”

Faubert wrote an in email that perceptual-cognitive transfer is one of the “hard questions to answer” in sports, saying it is difficult to form “a broad conclusion on the efficiency or inefficiency of the training.” He added that “we and others have been building evidence for the fact that it does play a role, but many scientific questions remain.”

Rob Gray, an associate professor in the Perception and Action Lab at Arizona State University, who hosts a popular podcast on sports-science topics, fretted that NeuroTracker removes too much of any sporting context to show the type of drastic transfer needed to go from excelling inside your living room to scoring more goals in the Premier League.

“One of the big problems I have is that NeuroTracker’s motion is completely random and unstructured,” Gray said. “The whole point of watching a basketball scene if you’re a point guard is that it is structured. Picking up that structure that’s specific to your sport is highly important.”

That so many successful teams and savvy athletes, like Ryan, would swear by NeuroTracker does not come as a total surprise.

“If you practice anything long enough, you will get better at it,” Williams said. “If you get better at it, it improves self-confidence, self-esteem, so you feel as if you’re improving. This is essentially a placebo effect.”

‘That Little Sandwich Part’

Some supporters feel that the NeuroTracker’s real problem might be that it is ahead of its time.

“There’s finally an appreciation of the importance of the mind with the body in high-performance work,” said Zaichkowsky, the sports scientist. “We’ve never had the acceptable methodology to train it.”

But that is where opinions about those methodologies diverge.

Daniel M. Laby runs the Sports and Performance Vision Center at the State University of New York’s College of Optometry. The center has a small office space with basketballs and soccer balls strewn across the floor, near an indoor putting mat. Laby calls it his playroom.

His job, though, involves testing the cognitive training equipment that is geared to sports. The room appears to be shrinking. It is getting harder to gauge what is useful, what is too early, what is junk. The products keep flowing into his office.

“All the other routes to advantage have basically been exhausted,” Laby said. “Teams are looking for an advantage. That advantage is now felt to be in this area of sport science, and specifically in this cognitive-neural-vision realm.”

The problem, Laby said, is that a genuine understanding of that realm is still nascent.

Faubert noted this from the seat of his own exploration, his laboratory, as he explained the intuition that led him down the path to NeuroTracker. An athlete’s mental processing capability is like “that little sandwich part between all the physical abilities of an athlete, their know-how about the game,” he said. l

There is never a play that is exactly the same. For that uncertainty, athletes have to rely on something unpracticed, untrained. It might just be spatial awareness or concentration. It might be something only the eight yellow spheres can determine.

“That capacity seems to be more important than people understand,” Faubert said. “I don’t know how important. But there’s no way these elite athletes would be so much better than the others, even amateur players, if it wasn’t important. That means it is critical. But how?”

He let the question linger. One could almost see the balls scattering around his mind.

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