Social distancing and uncertainty in sports play and practice have created a unique opportunity for young athletes. While they may be unable to spend as much time running drills or lifting weights with teammates, each athlete can focus on a part of their performance that often gets overlooked – cognitive skills.
"During this time, we really emphasize the idea of focusing on tangible things athletes can do on their own," says Scott Burkhart, Psy.D., Neuropsychologist at Children's Health℠ Andrews Institute for Orthopaedics & Sports Medicine.
What are cognitive skills in the world of sports?
Cognitive skills refer to the ability to identify and acquire environmental information in order to integrate them with existing knowledge.
"Our idea is that the eyes and the brain are two-thirds of what's required to take any athletic action," says Dr. Burkhart. "Your eyes have to do the searching, and your brain has to do the deciding before your body carries out that action."
Dr. Burkhart says some of the most important cognitive skills for any athlete are focus, visual attention, visual tracking and fast decision-making.
For instance, research shows that the most elite quarterbacks move their eyes more quickly to the most open receiver. Their visual attention allows them to quickly decide to throw the ball or keep it and run. They also hold their focus and attention on their target longer, using their visual tracking skills to give their brain more time to make the right decision.
How can athletes improve their cognitive skills?
Athletes can participate in visual training to improve cognitive skills. Visual training doesn't improve vision but improves the visual abilities mentioned above.
For instance, athletes can train better visual focus by looking at an item nearby, then quickly refocusing their vision on an item far away. By repeating this exercise, athletes can refocus their eyes and evaluate details that are close and far away.
Athletes can also do exercises to improve depth perception, peripheral awareness and many other visual skills that could help them perform better in their sport.
"Working on how the eyes function together, pursue targets, shift between targets and how long an athlete holds their gaze on a target are all examples of visual exercises," says Dr. Burkhart.
Reviewing film is also an essential aspect of improving cognitive skills in athletes as it helps them see areas where they can enhance physically and cognitively. Athletes can accomplish this by recording their games or practices and watching them later.
"Film is a lot like schoolwork," says Dr. Burkhart. "You can evaluate ‘how quickly do my eyes identify the problem and how quickly do I solve the problem?'"
Dr. Burkhart says that quickly using what athletes learn from watching a film can help. Results can include gains to their decision-making processes and changes in little details in their performance that make a big impact.
Athletes can train their cognitive skills at home, while safely social distancing. They can also take the time to think about whether they need to pay more attention during practice or improve their focus during the game. While these exercises may not immediately feel as beneficial as conditioning or drills, they can make a big difference in overall sports performance.
"It's really important to realize that while we see these athletes performing, there is a tremendous amount of what they are doing from the neck up," says Dr. Burkhart. "Vision and decision-making are paramount to their ability to perform athletically."
The only pediatric institute of its kind in the region, the Children's Health Andrews Institute for Orthopaedics & Sports Medicine provides convenient access to a full continuum of orthopedic and sports medicine care. Learn more about our orthopedic services.
Stay current on the health and wellness information that makes a difference to you and your family. Sign up for the Children's Health newsletter and have more expert tips and insights sent directly to your inbox.