Identify the cognitive demands for your athlete's sport.
The first step to creating a cognitive program, is to identify your athlete's cognitive demands for their sport. Read the cognitive demand definitions below and think about how they apply to your athletes when they are competing. This will give you an idea of which demands may be important for their sport and position.
Once you have identified the most dominant demands of your athlete's sport, create a list of demands starting with most dominant to least dominant. Most athletes will require all demands to some degree but not equally.
Memory is the ability to consciously hold and use information.
Is your athlete required to consider various tactical options in their mind and select the best one depending on what unfolds during the game?
Attention involves focusing mental awareness on relevant environmental cues and maintaining that concentration.
Is your athlete required to stay focused for long periods, such as being able to ignore irrelevant information, change their attentional focus, or pay close and continuous attention to what’s going on around them?
Response Inhibition refers to the ability to suppress inappropriate, irrelevant, or suboptimal actions.
Is your athlete required to inhibit responses during a game, such as not responding to an opponent’s feint (i.e., “not tricked into buying a dummy”)?
Decision-Making is the cognitive process resulting in the selection of an option or a course of action among several possible alternative options.
Is your athlete required to constantly make decisions based on new information becoming available?
Create a baseline test.
Now that you have identified a dominance hierarchy of cognitive demands for your
athlete's sport, it is time to build a baseline test.
Select 2 tasks from each of the categories from your athlete's dominant
If your athlete only has one dominant category, they may have 4 tasks in their baseline.
If you have found your athlete's cognitive demands are spread fairly evenly, select 1-2 tasks from each list with a maximum of 6 tasks in their baseline.
Do not overthink this step. The purpose is to collect data to estimate where your athlete’s current capabilities are. Focus on the cognitive demand, and adapt the load of the task with modes as needed.
Remember you need plenty of data in order to make good decisions. Baselines that are too short (with not enough tasks) will not allow you to pinpoint where your athlete is struggling because the tasks are not long enough to tax them sufficiently to tire them out. Also, short baselines will not give you enough data in terms of the number of responses (i.e., micro-decisions).
However, we should be mindful that baseline assessments are also training their brain and so we need to load them carefully according to the stage of their year- long season. Here we must strike a delicate balance of obtaining the data needed, without disrupting the athlete's training regime.
Baseline Duration Guidelines
Off Season 45-60 min
Pre Season 30-45 min
In Season 20-30 min
Task Duration Guidelines
Analyse the baseline data.
Once your athlete has completed their baseline test, analyse their data and
identify their strongest and weakest cognitive tasks for that cognitive demand.
The tool for this is the soma analytics profiling tool which gives you percentile breakdowns for each cognitive task across all measures and cognitive performances are categorised into Elite, Average, and Poor.
Generally speaking, if your athlete falls in the elite range for all the cognitive tasks you have selected for their baseline test, you may have underloaded the baseline (i.e., made it too easy for them). You will need to find harder or more intense tasks for that cognitive demand or apply a specialised training mode to increase the overall load on the athlete's brain. Most athletes will struggle with at least two areas of cognitive training when they begin. If your athlete is acing everything (i.e., universally performing at an elite level), go back and create a new and more difficult baseline for them before you move to the next step.
Create the cognitive training program.
Based on the data from the baseline test you should now see your athlete's strengths and weaknesses. You may now begin selecting cognitive tasks from the cognitive demands you want to focus on during the current mesocycle. This step is usually a hurdle for most people, who ask themselves “Which cognitive task do I select?” It is best to try and not to overthink at this stage – remember that this is an interactive process – you may need to adapt the plan, sometimes more than once, to optimise it for your athlete.
When designing the cognitive training plan we suggest focusing on your athlete’s weakest cognitive demand and then building their cognitive training plan by adding
elements of the stronger cognitive demands, with a 2:1 or 3:1 ratio of weak to strong demands.
For example, if your athlete performed "poor" in the tasks chosen from the attention demand in the baseline, and "average" in the tasks selected from the inhibition demand in the baseline, your training plan could contain 2 attention tasks for every 1 inhibition task.
This means the cognitive training plan is not just focusing on their weaknesses or strengths but rather is a mix/blend of both. Remember that you are only as good as your weakest link but you still need to maintain and update your strong cognitive skills.
When creating your athlete’s cognitive training program you will also need to take into consideration how you will integrate the cognitive training program.
Cognitive Integration can happen in 4 ways:
Pre Training Integration
Performing cognitive training prior to physical training.
This fatigues the brain and increases the athlete's perception of effort. The increased perception of effort over the athlete's physical training, increases their tolerance to a higher perception of effort.
Combining cognitive training while engaging in cardiovascular training.
This is an extremely engaging integration that pushes an athlete to make fast, accurate decisions while maintaining a certain physical workload.
Performing cognitive tasks during rest periods of physical training sessions.
This seamless integration increases the overall training load and requires the athlete to switch between physical and cognitive training.
Post Training Integration
Performing cognitive training directly after physical training.
This integration is very effective at mentally stretching athletes when they are already fatigued and replicates the demands of intense competition when athletes need to push their physical and mental limits.
Creating a cognitive training program that is comprised of cognitive demands that need improvement, as well as cognitive demands that need maintenance, is the proven key to success.
Adapt the load to the current season.
Adapt your athlete’s cognitive program to fit in with the phase of their season: sessions should be relatively long, medium, and short in the off-season, pre- season, and in-season, respectively.
Off Season 30 - 60 min
Pre Season 30 - 45 min
In Season 20 - 25 min
Off Season 10 min - 20 min - 30 min
Pre Season 5 min - 10 min
In Season 3 min - 5 min
3 - 5 sessions per week
Just like in physical training there is no magical cognitive training task. Instead, the magic is in the reps, sets, rest combinations, and layers within a training plan. The same principle applies to cognitive training. Apply sufficient intensity, duration, and a specialised mode that increases the overall cognitive load on your athlete's brain. Track the data and adapt as needed.
When building your athlete's cognitive training program we suggest selecting 3-4 cognitive tasks per cognitive demand with a maximum of 12 cognitive tasks per mesocycle. This arrangement will ensure that there is some, but not too much variation of tasks in the cognitive training plan. You do not need dozens of different tasks during a single training cycle, but instead, you want a small battery of targeted cognitive tasks with sufficient load.
Once task selection is complete you will need to ensure you have periodised the cognitive training program to avoid any performance plateaus and keep your athlete moving in the right direction. Just like physical training, you must push your athletes to create adaptations.
Importantly, repeating the same task with the same load each week will not improve your athlete's performance.
Once the training program has been completed you must analyse the data. Soma Analytics gives you the ability to get a breakdown of each cognitive measure per task as well as the overall change in cognitive performance. You can now identify which demands have improved and which demands need to improve and therefore should be targeted in your athlete’s next cognitive training program.