When creating a cognitive training plan for your athletes the first step is to identify the cognitive demands for their sport and then proceed to task selection. This is where the process usually stops and the athlete gets stuck with an underwhelming (i.e., boring, under-arousing) cognitive training plan with an insufficient load that does not challenge the athlete's brain. Athletes need more than just a cognitive task that focuses on the cognitive demand, it is important to realise that they need sufficient cognitive load to create mental adaptions that will ultimately enhance their performance. Layering cognitive tasks is the simple key to achieving success with cognitive training.

You can layer a task to increase or decrease the overall cognitive load on the athlete's brain. Do not overlook the importance of layering.

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)

Task selection alone will not create any significant changes in performance.

  • Layering tasks with the correct intensity and duration will increase the overall load on the athlete's brain.

  • Task placement will impact training session difficulty.

  • Applying specialized training modes will push an athlete's brainto their limits and ensure the cognitive training plan is dynamic, challenging, and engaging.

The largest differences between intervention groups and controls are consistently found on the most demanding cognitive tasks and task conditions. (Davis et al. 2011, Diamond et al. 2007, Manjunath & Telles 2001).


Layer 1

Training Placement

In order to keep athletes engaged with a cognitive training plan, they need to be able to easily integrate cognitive training into their current training regime and to be able to adapt the physical-mental integration depending on their current season and training schedule.

Training placement can happen in 3 ways:

  1. Pre Physical Training

  2. Combined with Physical Training

  3. Post Physical Training

Pre Physical Training

Here the athlete performs the entire cognitive training session prior to physical training. This fatigues the brain before they start exercising and thereby increases their perception of effort (i.e., makes exercise feel harder). This is not a bad thing, because the increased perception of effort compared to their physical training alone increases their tolerance to a higher perception of effort (in other words, they become more able to deal with extreme exercise demands). This will prove very useful for a competitive athlete when competition time comes.

Combined with Physical Training

Performing cognitive training between exercise sets (Intermittent) or combined at the same time as exercise training (Concurrent).

Intermittent

Performing cognitive tasks during rest periods after short exercise bouts during a physical training session. This is convenient and time-efficient integration as they are not doing anything in these rest periods anyway. Many time-poor athletes appreciate this option. Plus the combined physical and mental loads can help keep athletes more mentally alert during the entire session.

Intermittent integration can be performed by

  • Performing cognitive tasks for 3 minutes between strength sets as active rest.

  • Performing cognitive tasks for 3 minutes between skill training as active rest.

  • Performing cognitive tasks for 3 minutes between high-intensity cardio sprints.

Concurrent

Performing cognitive training while engaging in cardiovascular training while maintaining a fixed heart rate zone. This is an extremely effective integration in terms of taxing an athlete's limited mental capacity for mental and physical fatigue, as well as a time-saving option for busy athletes or teams who perform cardio sessions together.

Concurrent integration can be performed by

  • Combining Cognitive Training with cardiovascular training as a warm-up on the bike before starting your main training session.

  • Combining Cognitive Training with cardiovascular training as a cool down after finishing your main training session.

  • Combining Cognitive Training with HIT Training. You will need to perform your high-intensity sprint while performing the cognitive task. This is very hard, and should only be considered by elite athletes.

  • Combining Cognitive Training with long-duration cardiovascular training as a stand-alone session.

Post Physical Training

Performing cognitive training directly after physical training when already physically and mentally fatigued from an intense physical training session. This is very effective at mentally stretching athletes when they have already physically worked very hard. Athletes have to perform cognitively in competition no matter how physically fatigued they are. This method requires an athlete to be highly committed to getting cognitive results, as the temptation to skip a session at the end of training is high. This cognitive training can be performed while travelling home after a physical training session or competition, or if the delay is not long, when the athlete arrives home.


Layer 2

Task Duration

Changing the duration of a cognitive task will alter the overall cognitive load on the athlete's brain. By extending the task duration even by a few minutes, the entire load of the session increases and the extra minutes add up over the course of the cognitive training plan. A few minutes more may not seem like very much, but when you add up what is happening over those minutes you will understand why increasing task duration can be so effective. The same works in reverse, taking a few minutes off each session is an effective deloading strategy, as a handful of minutes off each session will substantially reduce the total reps and overall load on the athlete.

For example,

Performing 9 minutes of cognitive training per week over a month can total 1,620 cognitive reps (i.e., micro-decisions) per month. BUT performing an additional 6 minutes of cognitive training (15 minutes total) per week takes the monthly total to 2,700 cognitive reps. These small changes to task duration during each training session can have a huge influence on the total amount of REPS your athlete's brain clocks up. These reps are vital practise, repetition is how we train ourselves to be permanently great at anything. Plus this substantially increases the cognitive load your athlete experiences.

Deloading

As you can see in the examples below the minimal effective dose starts at 45m per week of cognitive training. Research has shown that we make around 35,000 decisions per day, so if your athlete's cognitive reps are only 1200 reps per week the load is not sufficient enough to create any meaningful cognitive adaptations. That amount of load is child's play for the brain. This is not to say that these smaller loading schemes are useless, but they should be used as a de-load strategy rather than the cornerstone of the cognitive training plan. Begin with the minimal effective dose, and increase in increments knowing that the additional 6 minutes or so is going to have an effect. Keep your shorter sessions and fewer reps for deloading much in the same way you would in a running or weights program.

Example,

The below cognitive reps per minute are averaged at 45 to keep things simple.

Deloading

1 min x1

  • Total session duration 1 min

  • Total duration per week 3 min

  • Sessional reps 45

  • Frequency per week 3

  • Total reps per week 135

  • Total reps per month 540

1 min x3

  • Total session duration 3 min

  • Total duration per week 9 min

  • Sessional reps 135

  • Frequency per week 3

  • Total reps per week 405

  • Total reps per month 1,620

1 min x5

  • Total session duration 5 min

  • Total duration per week 15 min

  • Sessional reps 225

  • Frequency per week 3

  • Total Reps per week 675

  • Total reps per month 2,700

3 min x3

  • Total session duration 9 min

  • Total duration per week 27 min

  • Sessional Reps 405

  • Frequency per week 3

  • Total Reps per week 1,215

  • Total reps per month 4,860

Minimal Effective Dose

3 min x5

  • Total session duration 15 min

  • Total duration per week 45 min

  • Sessional reps 675

  • Frequency per week 3

  • Total reps per week 2,025

  • Total reps per month 8,100

10 min x2

  • Total session duration 20 min

  • Total duration per week 60 min

  • Sessional reps 900

  • Frequency per week 3

  • Total reps per week 2,700

  • Total reps per month 10,800

3 min x 8

  • Total session duration 24 min

  • Total duration per week 72 min

  • Sessional reps 1,080

  • Frequency per week 3

  • Total reps per week 3,240

  • Total reps per month 12,960

5 min x5

  • Total session duration 25 min

  • Total duration per week 75 min

  • Sessional reps 1,125

  • Frequency per week 3

  • Total reps per week 3,375

  • Total reps per month 13,500

10 min x3

  • Total session duration 30 min

  • Total duration per week 90 min

  • Sessional reps 1,350

  • Frequency per week 3

  • Total reps per week 4,050

  • Total reps per month 16,200


Layer 3

Task Intensity

We want to be able to make adjustments to the cognitive training plan along the way. We also need to be able to progress any plan, to continue to push the athlete and get results. Changing the intensity of a cognitive task is going to alter the overall cognitive load on the athlete's brain. Increasing the intensity of a cognitive task causes the task to become more demanding (and so consume more of their limited cognitive resources). It can also increase the number of cognitive reps an athlete must perform over the duration of the cognitive task. This is a straightforward way to manipulate the amount of load on an athlete's brain.

Example

πŸ”— Undulating Periodisation

Increase/Decrease the intensity of the cognitive tasks each week.

Weekly undulating periodisation (WUP)

  • Week 1 70%

  • Week 2 40%

  • Week 3 80%

  • Week 4 60%

Daily undulating periodisation (DUP)

Increase/Decrease the intensity of the cognitive tasks each session.

  • Session 1 40%

  • Session 2 70%

  • Session 3 50%

  • Session 4 80%

πŸ”— Progressive Overload

Increase the intensity of the cognitive tasks each week.

  • Week 1 70%

  • Week 2 80%

  • Week 3 90%

  • Week 4 100%

The value of decreasing the intensity of a cognitive task.

By decreasing task intensity, the athlete is forced to wait for longer periods between each stimulus and therefore must maintain their attention for longer. Once the stimulus appears they must respond as quickly as possible. For some athletes, reducing the intensity of a task can become extremely frustrating as they begin to lose focus, waiting so long for the next stimulus to appear. The reduction of task intensity is also a great strategy to reduce the overall cognitive load on the athlete if they have been working at high intensities for extended periods. Just like in physical training, reducing the intensity for short periods during a mesocycle gives an athlete time to recover.


Layer 4

Training Modes

Soma Analytics gives coaches the ability to make even an easy task much more difficult with specialized training modes. This means you can select a very basic cognitive task with a minimal cognitive load and apply a specialized training mode to adapt the task in a variety of ways, including the following:

  • Maintain heart rate in a particular heart rate zone during the task.

  • Have the task adapt based on performance.

  • Have the task adapt based on heart rate variability (HRV).

  • Extend the task duration based on errors.

  • Have the athlete respond to a secondary task stimulus.

Specialized Training Modes allow you to take any cognitive task and manipulate the cognitive load, this engages the athlete and pushes their cognitive limits. By making the task more and more complex, you are able to more closely approximate the multiple demands that your athletes face during sporting competition.

How does this look in the real world?

In the five examples below, you can see how each task has been layered with a specialized training mode to increase the overall cognitive load. Rather than just performing a standard cognitive task each week and increasing or decreasing task intensity or duration, layering a mode on top of the task makes the cognitive training more engaging and dynamic for the athlete.

Example One

Visual Reaction Test

  • Duration: 10 min

  • Intensity: N/A

  • Mode: Visual Percentile Feedback Mode

VPF mode is designed to optimize response time by giving athletes real-time percentile changes in response speed. VPF mode will display the athlete's percentage of change compared to the previous correct response.

Apply Visual Percentile Feedback mode to give your athletes real-time feedback for correct responses relative to previous correct responses. This specific mode should increase your athlete's focus to improve the consistency of their responses and will not impact their physical training session that day. The athlete needs to aim to respond within plus/minus 10% of the previous correct response. By giving athletes live relative performance feedback on every correct response, they will also learn how variable their reaction time can be.

When you first start applying this mode, we suggest starting with lower-intensity tasks so the athlete has time to reset themselves for the next stimulus.

VPF Mode Instructions

For every correct response, you will receive percentile feedback if you were faster or slower than the previous correct response. Aim to respond within - + 10%

Example Two

CMSIT

  • Duration: 20 min

  • Intensity: N/A

  • Mode: Heart Rate Zone Mode

HRZ mode is designed so that the athlete must maintain a certain Heart Rate Zone during their cognitive training. This mode allows athletes to easily integrate mental and physical training by combining cardiovascular training with their cognitive training.

πŸ”— How To Integrate Heart Rate Zone Training And Cognitive Training.

πŸ”— How To Replicate Cardiovascular And Cognitive Demands in Sport.

HRZ Mode Instructions

Physically exert yourself to raise your heart rate to the required Target Heart Rate Zone. If you go outside the Heart Rate Zone you will have 10 secs to return to the Target Heart Rate Zone before the task resumes.

Example Three

Task Switching

  • Duration: 5 min

  • Intensity: 80%

  • Mode: Cardiovascular Exertion Mode

CEM mode is a performance-related biofeedback mode where the athlete needs to reach a certain Heart Rate (HR) to select the answer (i.e., make their response) in the cognitive task. Combining interoceptive awareness with cognitive training creates a challenging mind-body environment for an athlete, forcing them to detect and respond to changing conditions. Soma NPTs cardiovascular exertion mode is a performance-related biofeedback mode where the athlete needs to reach a certain Heart Rate (HR) to select the correct answer for the ongoing cognitive task. As simple as this sounds, the athlete must pace themselves during the entire cognitive task and apply pacing strategies when the time comes to exert themselves in order to respond correctly to the cognitive task.

Cardiovascular Exertion Mode works by taking the athlete’s live Heart Rate (HR) and giving the athlete a target HR response. The athlete has two options, to slowly grind to the target heart rate to respond to the cognitive task or to exert themselves more fully to respond to the task and allow themselves time to recover as fast as possible between each stimuli. This training quickly becomes hard for an athlete because Soma NPT continuously tracks the current live HR and requires that the athlete achieves a set heart rate range in order to respond correctly to the cognitive task.

πŸ”— Performance-Related Biofeedback Cognitive Training.

CEM Mode Instructions

When the stimulus appears physically exert yourself to raise your heart rate to the required BPM to respond. Tap the drill name to hide the live BPM to perceive your heart rate without biofeedback. Tap R to initiate recovery mode.

Example Four

Incongruent Flanker

  • Duration: 10 min

  • Intensity: 90%

  • Mode: Task Switching Mode

TSM mode is designed to give the athlete a secondary high cognitive load task to respond to. Task switching mode trains an athlete to process stimuli from different tasks. This mode pushes the athlete to become more efficient in order to free up cognitive resources in order to switch attentional focus rapidly and efficiently and handle higher levels of cognitive load.

TSM Mode Instructions

Tap the left button for white numbers 0-5 and red odd numbers when they appear in the top right corner.

Tap the right button for white numbers 6-10 and red even numbers when they appear in the top right corner.

Example Five

Visual Choice Test

  • Duration: 3 min

  • Intensity: N/A

  • Mode: Deviating Pacing Mode

Deviating Pacing Mode is designed to track variations in performance and give the athlete visual feedback when cognitive performance deteriorates. This feedback allows athletes to constantly try and push their cognitive limits. If the athlete can maintain a variation of less than a few percent, they will not receive visual feedback. The duration of the feedback will depend on how much variation has occurred between their consecutive responses. This means that athletes cannot get too relaxed and comfortable with their current cognitive processing speed. They must become comfortable with being uncomfortable and continually push beyond their cognitive comfort zones.

DPM Mode Instructions

DPM mode will track variations in your performance and if you are underperforming the timing bar will turn pink. When the timing bar turns pink you need to increase your response speed while maintaining accuracy.

Did this answer your question?