Not too many seasons ago, the Portland Trail Blazers were in trouble. Strings of defeats were crushing their spirit. Instead of pointing fingers or giving up, they pulled themselves closer and found a way to up their game.
At about the same time, pro football Quarterback Kirk Cousins was with the Washington Redskins, where he struggled with inconsistent performance that led to lost opportunities to prove himself. He looked to the same solution; brain training.
It may be an innovative as part of athletic training protocol, but biofeedback has long been a successful way to treat conditions like chronic pain and high blood pressure. With information about their brain’s electrical function – the biofeedback part – a patient learns to control what are essentially involuntary functions, such as heart rate.
So, why wouldn’t it help professional athletes, who can achieve peak performance, as long as they keep their head in the game.
Both the Trail Blazers and Cousins sought help from Neurocore Brain Performance Centers. Founder and neuropsychologist, Dr. Tim Royer, is convinced brain training is the next level in the world of professional athletic performance. It’s the one thing everyone is not doing.
His process teaches athletes how to get into the zone of peak performance at will, as well as slowing the brain down again so that it can recover efficiently, along with all of the body’s systems.
“These elite athletes aren’t just good athletically, they’re also very strong mentally. 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.”
And when the game is over, they are using the training to wind down, lowering their brain activity to a more tranquil level so that truly restorative sleep will follow.
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It’s not a new concept that the mind plays just as important a role in performance as the body. Mental strengthening is a basic in military training. Mind-over-matter can be a powerful force.
It’s expected that athletes will preface competition by psyching themselves up, performing rituals and breathing deeply. Whether they know it or not, these habits are signaling their brains to slow down and tap into their subconscious, where muscle memory is stored.
Muscle memory is what is gleaned from endless practice of a skill set. Without distractions from the outside world, or one’s own conscious thought, the potential is there to perform the same task the same way every time.
When a batter steps up to the plate, more than one fan is willing him to not choke, in other words, to lose focus.
Brains have neuroplasticity, which means they can change. They can be exercised, just like the body, into better condition. This is true for everyone, with or without mental health conditions. Dr. Royer started Neurocore as a drug-free way to treat children with attention-deficit disorders. It expanded to treat children and adults with a variety of brain imbalances, including depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder and migraines.
During his senior year at Michigan State, Cousins began training at the Grand Rapids-based Neurocore. Going pro sent him to Washington state, where he was unable to impress and was benched.
Pre-season, Year 4, he was back on the roster, unbelievably, as starting quarterback. His coach credited a dramatic improvement in Cousins’ mental game. His off-season work was intense, and included a renewed commitment to brain training, including a portable kit he could use at home or on the road.
In 2018, Cousins started for the Minnesota Vikings on a 3-year, $84 million contract.
He is looking forward to staying ahead of the pack with his improved mental stamina, but predicts it will be short lived with biofeedback becoming standard training protocol before long.
“If you look at weightlifting in the 1950s and ’60s, not every football player was lifting weights. They weren’t sure about the benefit it would give you,” Cousins said. “Now everybody has a strength coach, everyone lifts weights. I see brain training as being that next thing, the next frontier.”
As for the guys in Portland, since embracing brain training, they have consistently made it to post-season play.
Cousins’ case is a common one of a brain running faster than it should, like most people in today’s stress-filled world. It’s why we are distracted, forgetful, anxious.
Given his profession and drive, his brain was over-stimulated and running on adrenaline much of the time. He was in the fight-or-flight response that sends hormones surging through the body on a too-frequent basis. It is harmful to the cardiovascular, respiratory and endocrine systems.
Brain training is something anyone can do, exactly the way athletes do. Essentially, it is positive reinforcement, such as training a dog with treats, bumped up with technology.
The “trainee” selects a movie to watch from a comfy chair. The only other things they really need to do are breathe and pay attention. The catch is, if their mind wanders, and it will, the DVD player knows and stops the video. A few small electrodes attached to the head monitor the brain’s electrical waves.
As soon as the brain refocuses it is rewarded with the restarted video. With practice, that happens so quickly the trainee won’t even notice. But the biofeedback continues to offer vital practice.
Royer explains that a 30-minute session can result in more than 2,000 adjustments to brain function, while the trainee is aware of nothing but the movie. That’s a lot of gain, with no pain.
With the brain in balance and at peak function, physiological systems and sleep patterns are also regulated, leading to an upward spiral of overall good health.