Training the brain

How our experts get into the heads of our athletes to bridge the tiny gap between success and failure.

In performance sport, the margin between success and failure can be miniscule. Often, science and technology can hold the key to competitive advantage. Here we explore how the sportscotland institute of sport and the University of Stirling are collaborating in the use of EEG technology to progress our understanding of how the brain works in performance sport. 

In the high stakes world of international sport, the tiniest changes in performance can mean the difference between success and failure. The search for a competitive advantage requires the continual adoption of new scientific methods and the integration of cutting-edge technologies. Here, we explore the science behind the latest innovations in sports neuroscience and how the sportscotland institute of sport’s Dr Malcolm Fairweather is working hard to give our athletes a head start.

Since 2012, Malcolm, sportscotland institute of sport’s Head of Performance Solutions, has been working closely with two experts from the University of Stirling — Head of Psychology Professor David Donaldson and Postdoctoral Research Fellow Dr Joanne Park. Together they have been exploring new technical processes and understandings of brain functions in high performance sport. 


Making waves in sports neuroscience

This project and their 2015 review paper, Making The Case for Mobile Cognition: Electroencephalogram (EEG) and Sports Performance, has made waves in sports neuroscience.

The perfect combination of their knowledge, skills and research has provided powerful insights into the potential offered by recent advances in mobile EEG technology to make skill acquisition and performance enhancement in sport a reality.

Malcolm explained: “David and Joanne work at the very cutting edge of EEG science on a daily basis. They have an applied foundation to their work and are keen to collaborate with us to transfer this knowledge and understanding towards Scottish advantage in sport.”

EEG technology has arrived in the sporting field

Traditionally, the EEG method has been restricted to the laboratory environment, while the sporting experience of an athlete is entirely dependent on the real-world environment in which they compete and train.

In practice even the best laboratory science cannot fully capture the complex cognitive states produced when athletes compete in high performance sport. However, in their 2015 paper, the team revealed that recent advances in mobile EEG technology now enable assessment of sporting behaviour in the field.

Brain activity of athletes can now be monitored in real-time and in authentic sporting environments, making it possible to obtain a clear profile of cognitive processes implicated in mastery of sport-specific techniques and experiences on an individual basis.

The development of sporting expertise can now be tracked by measuring changes in the EEG patterns and monitoring the influence of practice, creating opportunities for bespoke interventions. In practice, a key methodological concern when using mobile EEG activity is physical movement, which can make recording brain activity impossible. 

Mobile EEG technology and target sports

As a result, the relatively static and cognitive nature of target sports, such as curling, golf or shooting, are ideal for mobile EEG investigations, whereas applying EEG to high impact sports, such as sprinting, boxing or snowboarding, remains far more challenging.

Target sports require a complete clarity of focus and attention that can be time-linked with mobile EEG measures. Adding data from EEG to the eye movement process would provide coaches and support staff with a method of mapping shot-by-shot brain and eye movement activity to help guide and understand performance. 

International recognition

The team’s review paper is published in one of the world’s highest rated neuroscience journals, the prestigious Neuroscience and Biobehavioural Reviews. Their efforts in revealing what we know, what we don’t know and what we need to know in the measurement of brain activity in sport has been noted internationally.

Looking ahead, the aim is to combine better understanding of optimal performance ‘templates’ with real-time EEG monitoring — AKA neurofeedback — to help athletes recreate optimal cognitive states, and as a result, improve their chances of performing to the absolute best of their ability.

Dare to be first

Malcolm added: “In order to maximise returns from this work, the next stage requires systematic and longitudinal applications within Scottish high performance sport. This opportunity is sitting on our doorstep and does not require a ‘dare to dream’ solution — it simply requires a ‘dare to be first’ attitude!”

It’s an exciting prospect for Scottish sport. Training the brain is today’s sport science and with equipment validated and the state of the playing field acknowledged, David, Joanne and Malcolm are keen to get started on the next phase of their work.

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