Cognitive performance testing and training was traditionally always done on a computer, in a highly controlled lab setting. With the rise of mobile technology, universities are also undertaking their cognitive performance research with iPads and iPhones. The days of big equipment and large screens are numbered. With the events of the last few years affecting how everyone works and trains, it is now even clearer, that a flexible and mobile system has huge advantages for both the research and sports communities. The advantages conferred by mobile systems are proving too good to pass up.
In this article, we will cover some common misconceptions around cognitive training equipment as well as the limitations that large devices place on those wishing to conduct cognitive research and training.
Screen Size. Is it Relevant?
A huge misconception is screen size: bigger is NOT better. While a large screen looks nice in a training facility, the size of the screen does not determine the impact of a cognitive task. A cognitive task is designed to impose a cognitive workload and it must consume limited cognitive resources in order to do this if the athlete is to benefit from the training. This beneficial effect does not come from the size of the screen; it is nonsense to believe that a bigger screen imposes a greater cognitive workload than a smaller screen. The purpose of cognitive training is to process information and respond to information as fast as possible. The size of the screen an individual performs on is irrelevant. These days, clubs and universities can save money by simply purchasing a few iPads or iPhones and using mobile technology instead.
Will a large screen improve an athlete's peripheral reaction times?
Research has shown that engaging in central vision reaction training transfers to peripheral vision and vice versa. Therefore a large screen is not necessary in order to improve peripheral reactions.
Research: Practice effects on reaction time for peripheral and central visual fields
The present study examined whether EMG-RT (RT) for a keypress to stimulus in peripheral and central visual fields decreases with practice. 16 male students were divided into two groups, one practicing using peripheral vision, the other practicing using central vision. Before and after practice, RT was measured for peripheral and central visual fields. Each group practiced three blocks of 25 trials five days a week for three weeks. RT for peripheral and central visual fields decreased with practice. Practice effects on RT for the peripheral visual field extended to RT for the central visual field, and vice versa. It is suggested that the transfer may reflect the decrease in the central nervous system's processing time in common between two RT tasks.
Research: Retention of practice effects on simple reaction time for peripheral and central visual fields
Previous researchers reported that EMG Reaction Time (RT) for a keypress in peripheral and central visual fields decreases with practice. The practice effects on the RT for peripheral visual field transferred to the RT for the central visual field, and vice versa. The present study investigated whether practice effects on the RT for peripheral and central visual fields and the corresponding transfer effects lasted 3 wk. or not. 16 male subjects were divided into two groups, one practicing using peripheral vision, the other practicing using central vision. Each group practiced RT tasks for 3 wk. 3 wk. after practice terminated, the practice effects and the transfer effects were maintained as a significant decrease in RT was found over the 3-wk. retention interval, suggesting that once the neural correlates of responding quickly are improved, the improved performances are remarkably stable for at least 3 wk.
Frequency, Loading, and Training Location
Large equipment can look impressive and draw a crowd on social media, but is there enough cognitive workload being applied to the athlete? If you have a team of 20-30 athletes and just 1 big piece of equipment, logistics mean that each person must wait their turn and perform a very short session before moving on to the next activity. Is the cognitive workload sufficient? Probably not. Athlete's need a sufficient dose (i.e., frequency x duration) of cognitive training for longer than just a few minutes in order to benefit from it. How often can athlete's come to the facility to use a big solitary device there? In order for cognitive training to really BE cognitive training, there must be enough training frequency in order to achieve the cognitive workload required to challenge the individual and change their cognitive abilities.
By adopting a mobile-based training strategy you could have a number of iPads or iPhones and your athletes could log in to their devices and perform their training without having to wait. They could also train with their own device at home, while traveling, and while even on holiday or during the offseason. No excuses. No waiting. Sufficient cognitive workload can be applied to athlete's and their performance can be monitored no matter where they are.
Hardware systems usually age quite fast and lack the latest data metrics. Most are only supplying two measures which is insufficient to comprehensively measure cognitive load.
Universities already understand the importance of having the metrics they need. Often, athletes, clubs, and teams fail to understand how much data they need for cognitive training and performance, which metrics are important, and what they mean in terms of athletic performance. Hardware can not always be updated to the level required, software however is easily updated and adapted.
In the linked article below, we cover the following measures and explain the importance and relevance of each one.
Integration of cognitive training with physical training can be very difficult or impossible when there is just one large piece of equipment available. With mobile technology, you have the ability to perform cognitive training while training on cardiovascular equipment, between training sets in the gym, or pre and post-team or skills training. It is easily integrated. And with the ability to create and supply custom training plans directly into any mobile device the athlete only needs to log in and follow the bespoke session prescribed for them. This increases compliance with cognitive training, reduces the barriers in the way of just getting it done, and reduces the steps required to engage with the technology required to access cognitive training.
Cognitive load is the key to progress. Many systems are using traditional cognitive tasks, which are fantastic, but there isn't much room to scale or adapt these tasks. The brain must be constantly challenged in order to adapt to new and varied demands. The brain is highly adaptable and can become used to a certain level of cognitive load. Without the ability to increase the difficulty or intensity of these tasks, they eventually lose their impact and effectiveness. Systems that don’t get or can’t be updated are typically left collecting dust after barely one season of use.
Cognitive demands need to be continually incrementally increased or few gains are seen. (Bergman Nutley et al. 2011, Holmes et al. 2009, Klingberg et al. 2005)
Cognitive Task Selection
Having a large and diverse portfolio of tasks to select from keeps things fresh in cognitive training. It is like running the same route every day, day in and day out. Simply running faster or wearing a weight vest may alter the load on the body but it still gets really boring. Cognitive tasks are challenging the brain but in order to keep the athlete engaged and interested in the training, there needs to be a variety of cognitive tasks and ways to vary the demands they place on the brain. Much like finding a new and challenging running route, the brain and the athlete enjoy varied challenges. Variation assists with overall compliance on a program. Which in turn, helps to maintain consistent improvements. Cognitive training can be made fun and rewarding if the battery of tasks creates the right psychological states – such as being interesting, effortful, novel, and adaptable.
Any kind of change we want to make to an athlete’s body and brain needs to be monitored and periodized. Periodization is how we manage the amount of load athletes are under, carefully planning out a cognitive training plan over a season. Periodization is vital, especially when we are dealing with athletes who typically adapt fast to cope with task demands. Load needs to be controlled, ensuring we do more at the right time and taper at the right time. Athletes need to be able to maintain the gains they make in the off-season while staying sharp in-season. Nearly every system out there that makes claims of cognitive training is missing this important point. Training means we are working towards a goal of improvement, that can be quantified using data analytics. If it is not possible to easily use a cognitive training system to periodize cognitive programs, then what is the training achieving? How do we know when the training dose is too much or too little? How do we know if there are any improvements? Unperiodized cognitive training is unlikely to help athletes. With people who are already pushing themselves to the limit, can we afford to risk just playing with cognitive load and hoping something happens?
Systems that only offer drills with no long-term cognitive periodization methods or solutions are seriously missing the mark when it comes to athletic performance. Mobile technology makes this process easier because cognitive training plans can easily be designed, customized, and sent to an athlete's device. Periodization methods can be selected, and the cognitive load carefully tracked and adapted as part of the management of that athlete. This is absolutely vital for making performance gains and ensuring the efficacy of a cognitive program.
For a more detailed comparison of cognitive training platforms please see the article below.