Post-COVID-19 Return-to-Play: Brain Training for Athletes

The global pandemic brought on by COVID-19 put a halt to much of what we previously took for granted — including athletics on the youth, collegiate and professional levels. Though such measures seemed extreme to sports fans, they were also very necessary. But as countermeasures often do, they may come with a cost of their own. In this case, that price might be paid by incoming rookies who may be unable to benefit from pre- or off-season training before gearing up to play. Though these competitors will have to get up to speed (literally, in some cases) in possibly unconventional ways, doing so is indeed possible. And tapping into the science and practice of brain training can help these athletes delve into their playbook and acclimate themselves to the speed of the game.

I should note, upfront, that training the brain isn’t only for athletes. I like to say that training the brain keeps you in the sport of life. When done well and consistently, it can provide immense health benefits that span the course of an entire lifetime. Even if you aren’t training to return to a particular sport, anyone can benefit from a sharper mind . That’s perhaps especially true after the months of relative isolation many people recently experienced. So whether or not you’re an athlete, what you read here might help you too.

[Read: 7 Easy Ways to Fuel Young Athletes.]

What exactly do we neurologists mean when we use the term brain training? It’s a relatively new concept that continues to gain significant momentum in terms of optimal performance as an athlete. Previously, it was believed that becoming proficient or dominant in any sport meant that one must entirely focus on training the strength, agility, flexibility and efficiency of the musculoskeletal and cardiovascular systems. These aspects are essential; however, new research has shown that training the brain is a significant factor in optimal athletic performance. In short, neurological function (how the nervous system works) significantly affects our body’s musculoskeletal and cardiovascular performance and is a critical aspect of athleticism.

It’s probably no surprise that the ability to concentrate or stay focused on any given task is an important skill. Becoming distracted or losing focus has consequences. Indeed, for athletes, the ability to mentally process schemes and formations and to block out surrounding “noise” means they can remain focused on pursuing and achieving their goals. As sports neurologists, we have become adept at our ability to measure an athlete’s cognition and then help them set goals to improve it. In many cases, this isn’t merely about improving an individual’s ability to concentrate for a longer time.

One of the hallmarks of optimal cognition is predicting something that might happen before it happens, rather than merely reacting to it once it does. This correlates with the speed of mental processing that the most successful athletes often possess. Many games are won or lost based on split-second decisions, so the brain’s ability or inability to diagnose a play or calm the body at a pivotal moment can be a game-changer.

[See: 8 Signs You Are Made to Be an Athlete.]

Many elite, storied athletes also use mindfulness. This includes awareness of stress as it relates to the internal and external environment. A mindfulness practice enhances the ability to remain in the rhythm of the game while transcending the inherent stress of it to stay calm, relaxed and focused on a task — or even better, the ability to participate without “thinking” (flow state).

Another significant factor in optimal brain training for athletes is associated with vision. From hand-eye coordination and the ability of the brain to move the body based on what is seen by the eyes, to peripheral awareness and being able to see something “out of the corner of the eye,” there are a variety of ways that visual prowess has ties to optimal athletic performance. You may have heard of some of these concepts. Still, there are a variety of others tied to vision that can be trained, including dynamic visual acuity, tracking ability, depth perception, reaction time and contrast sensitivity.

Not to be ignored in the realm of brain training significance is vestibular, balance and proprioceptive ability. These are fancy terms for something that most of our bodies do by design: maintain balance and awareness of our limbs in space without looking at them. The proprioceptive system functions in this way — the nerves in the muscles and joints send a signal to the brain regarding the positioning of the body’s extremities in space. Most people are born with these senses (they’re what give us the ability to walk without looking at our legs or feet, for example), but elite athletes possess them in spades. And those who want even higher acuity in this regard can train for it.

[See: 13 Fun Sports That Burn Calories.]

In summary, the physical “training” you may have missed during the pandemic isn’t the end-all to what an athlete needs to play at an optimal performance level. If physical training restrictions are still in effect where you live, seek ways to engage in brain-training activities. Many sports neurology practices are offering telemedicine appointments for individuals to do just that, safely. We may not be able to change our circumstances, but we can positively adapt to them and come out prepped and ready to get back in the game of life.

More from U.S. News

8 Health Challenges Facing Olympic Athletes

8 Signs You Are Made to Be an Athlete

Here’s How Many Calories 6 Summer Olympic Sports Burn

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