Building the New Super Athlete

Thursday, August 29th, 2013

Building the new super athlete means more than building the athlete’s body:

Nick Podesta was the nation’s top-ranked 16-and-under tennis player when injuries forced him to take time off from the tournament circuit. Like just about any tennis phenom capable of overwhelming with big ground strokes, he was occasionally tripped up by lapses in concentration and focus. Gordon Uehling, his coach and mentor, decided to plug Podesta into a neuro-feedback machine to see if he could train Nick’s brain to be better at tennis.

Podesta now makes an extra weekly trip to CourtSense, Uehling’s Tenafly, New Jersey headquarters, to plug into the Neurotopia machine, the first such system on the East Coast. This morning, he checks into a quiet, windowless room, settles into a cushy Barcalounger-type recliner, gets a number of electrical leads attached to his scalp, and plays a video game with his brain.

As Nick stares at the monitor screen on the wall directly in front of him, the computer registers the brain waves emanating from certain key neural regions. If there is a subtle increase in the higher-frequency beta waves, indicating a lively mental focus, the computer rewards him. The pink rocket ship on the screen billows smoke from its exhaust pipe, the music volume increases, and the screen brightens, creating a pleasing illusion of forward motion and good times in outer space. If he’s in the lower theta frequencies, suggesting Nick has tuned out, the screen grows dim and quiet, no rocket smoke. “It’s like a stethoscope to the brain,” Uehling says from an adjoining room. Uehling’s own brain is in full multitasking mode. He’s observing Podesta’s session on two monitors, one with the unfolding video game on it, one with real-time brain-wave analysis, and at the same time he’s watching, via a laptop connection, the progress of another protégé, Christina McHale, No. 63 in the world, who is playing a tournament match in Rome, tuning up for the French Open.

The goal behind all the fancy Neurotopia electronics is something the neuroscientists like to call “self-regulation.” This is the idea that using basic behavioral conditioning techniques — a positive stimulus for the “right” response, a negative stimulus for the “wrong one” — you can train your brain to influence physiological processes that we normally think are beyond, or below, conscious control: body temperature, heart rate, or, in this case, brain waves, the patterns neurons make when they fire as a group.

The Neurotopia system draws on what the San Luis Obispo, California, start-up company’s chief science officer Leslie Sherlin calls a “brain bank.” Sherlin is a neuroscientist, who has studied the brain waves of pro-sports teams — the Seattle Seahawks and Mariners, as well as elite, Red Bull-sponsored athletes in individual sports. He’s got in his bank about 1,200 brains, that is, their EEG readouts when performing sports-related tasks. This information is fed into the computer to become the gold-standard algorithms that Neurotopia trains clients to approximate when they play the video games. Sherlin and his tech staff hooked up top golfer Rickie Fowler on the putting green as one of their reference brains. As Fowler sank putts, the electric leads attached to his head sent his brain-wave data to the Neurotopia team’s three laptops arrayed around the green.

Sherlin found distinct patterns in the way the top pros were able to toggle back and forth between focusing on the task and then, at the moment of truth — in this case Fowler swinging the putter — relaxing into an open mental state. That’s a skill that doesn’t show up in the brain scans of even a scratch club player. “I don’t want to stand on a pedestal and say we’ve figured it all out,” Sherlin says, “because this data is still anecdotal. But definitely, the elite perform differently, even if the nonelite is really good.”

If Neurotopia has not yet arrived at the final portrait of the perfect brain orchestrating the perfect putt or home-run swing, the system is good enough to have been embraced by the likes of Nascar racer and all-around motor-sports stud Travis Pastrana, Olympic beach volleyball heroines Kerri Walsh and Misty Mae Trainer, and Mike Bryan, of the Bryan brothers men’s doubles tennis juggernaut. And, for his part, Nick Podesta is keen.

During a match, he says, he now finds it easier to maintain his concentration — in Neurotopia-speak, his “focus endurance.” If the match isn’t going well, if the weather conditions are bad or the line calls are going against him, he taps into another Neurotopia training, “stress recovery,” a kind of Zen letting-go empowered by a decrease in “mind chatter.” “I’m physically pumped up, running down balls,” he says. “But my mind is able to stay relaxed, in the moment. I’m not overthinking.”

The future of brain training in sport may take us to stranger places than Sherlin might care to imagine. Over the past few years, Johns Hopkins’ Dr. Pablo Celnik has done a handful of landmark studies demonstrating that techniques like transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) and transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS), emerging depression therapies, can also improve the way healthy people learn and retain “motor behaviors.” He’s currently working with the Air Force to see if brain stimulation can enhance pilots’ ability to perform physically in challenging, fast-moving environments. “Someone may be able to practice with a stimulator on their head, and they will perform better,” Celnik says. “Then, when the Olympics comes around, he doesn’t need to have it on his head anymore. You cannot trace it. So yes, in a way, this would be 21st-century doping.”

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