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When was the last time you held a paper map in your hands and tried to navigate somewhere new? Or dialed a phone number by memory instead of from your phone’s contact app? Or did math in your head versus using a calculator? It’s probably been ages. That’s because digital technology is designed to offload cognitive work to a digital device. And while this makes life easier for us, it prevents our brains from doing the hard things that make it stronger.
Just like the muscles that you train so hard in the gym, your brain requires stimulation and exercise to grow and maintain cognitive function. Without it, your mind will turn to mush. For an athlete, it could be the difference between success and failure.
“Most of the athletes I know want to get a competitive edge,” says John Kennedy, a pioneer in the field of applied neuroplasticity and director of the Mental Performance Institute who created the world’s first targeted neuroplasticity training program — Combat Brain Training — at the request of the U.S. Marines in 2007. “Just as they are trying to keep their bodies strong, they also want to improve their mental acuity. Competitors know that better focus and faster mental and physical reaction times will help them win.”
But finding brain-training programs that offer proven results can be challenging. That’s why Kennedy advocates for integrating brain training with physical activities and workouts instead of doing them separately.
“There are many digital-based brain-training programs that make all kinds of promises but in reality don’t work,” says Kennedy, comparing these programs to watching someone work out on TV and then telling yourself you had a good workout. “That’s because the digital interface — looking at a screen and moving your finger — does not engage the parts of your body that you want to improve brain-body connection with. When your brain is working harder in sync with your body, you are simultaneously improving the efficiency of the connections between your brain and body.”
How does Combat Brain Training work?
The program is based on early research from MIT that found that “robust stimulation” can physically change the brain almost instantaneously. Robust stimulation involves as many parts of the brain as possible — eyes, ears, mouth, hands and feet — while targeting mental processes critical to performance.
As data enters the brain, it first must be analyzed and filtered for relevance, then synthesized into an action and finally executed on. Any inefficiencies in that process will produce slow, suboptimal results. By making this process more efficient, individuals find improved focus and attention, reduced stress and significantly improved “cognitively primed anticipation” — a scientific word for intuition. Because hands and feet are also simultaneously engaged, physical reaction times become accelerated.
While Kennedy’s one-of-a-kind program was originally developed to reduce casualties in the Marines by improving intuition and alertness, he found a natural transition to athletes who are in similar situations — high stress, with critical success factors being performance and teamwork. Trevor Harris, one of the top quarterbacks in the Canadian Football League, credits Combat Brain Training with helping his decision-making and focus.
Kennedy’s team also brain-trained the North Carolina Tar Heels women’s soccer team. And possibly one of the biggest success stories comes from the Loyola University Chicago Ramblers men’s basketball team, who had lost five games in a row — they’ve enjoyed a winning record ever since working with Kennedy, even making it to the NCAA Final Four this year.
Brain Training Yourself
If you’re looking to gain a competitive edge on the field, in the gym or at work, you can start to experience noticeable improvements after just one session of the program. But you can apply these same principles at home by yourself. Just keep in mind that neuroplasticity — your brain’s ability to change throughout your life — works through repetition and hard work, so try some of these exercises regularly for a few minutes before practices, games or a big day at the office. The goal is to make your brain work hard in sync with your body.
- While walking on a treadmill, toss a ball hand to hand while repeating times tables aloud.
- While on the elliptical machine, try to read a magazine out loud (speaking has a powerful effect on the brain) but substitute a color for the last word on each line. See the word but say the color. You can add more colors in sequence to make it harder. For instance, say “red” every time you see the word “the” and “blue” every time you see the word “it.”
- Throw a ball against the wall or shoot a basket while doing jumping jacks and reciting a poem you know by heart or a speech you have memorized.
“Each of these examples works multiple parts of your brain and body simultaneously, in ways that will improve your focus, decision-making ability and coordination,” Kennedy says. “Just as lifting weights becomes easier over time, and you eventually need to switch to heavier ones to feel challenged, your brain will adapt and you’ll be able to take on harder and faster tasks with less stress. When thinking becomes unconscious, everything fires faster. You will experience better performance in all areas of your life.”