How Video Games Can Improve Your Kids' Hand-Eye Coordination

Well, there goes that golden piece of parental logic.  For years, we’ve been arguing, imploring and threatening our kids to get off their Xbox, PS4 or even Wiis (are those still around?) and get outside for some fresh air and reality.  It isn’t healthy, we argued, to sit in front of that TV and play video games for hours.  While we still have the cardiovascular argument in our corner, new research just confirmed that gaming actually improves our kids’ ability to learn new sensorimotor skills.

Kids Who Move Can Grow Their Brain

If there is one thing that Charles Hillman wants parents and teachers to understand, it is the power of aerobic activity to improve the brains of young children.  From his Neurocognitive Kinesiology Lab at the University of Illinois, Professor Hillman has produced study after study showing not only cognitive improvement in the classroom but also the brain’s physical changes that occur when kids become more fit.  His latest research, in collaboration with postdoctoral researcher Laura Chaddock-Heyman and Arthur Kramer, Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience, reveals more compact white-matter tracts in the brains of a group of 9 and 10 year olds who were in better shape than their peers.

Maybe Your Kids Inherited Your Couch Potato Genes

On the road to sports success, young athletes need two ingredients, innate skills and the willingness and determination to get better.  We all know boys and girls who showed early promise that got them noticed but then didn’t have the drive to practice every day to develop that talent.  Often labeled lazy or unmotivated, the assumption was that they chose their own path by not working hard.  

However, new research shows evidence that genetics may play a role not only in the natural abilities of a developing superstar but also in their practice persistence and physiological response to training.

In his bestselling book The Sports Gene, David Epstein introduced us to the notion that your inherited genes may affect how your body reacts to training, both psychologically and physiologically.  He references an ongoing project at the University of Miami, known as Genetics of Exercise and Research (GEAR), whose stated purpose is: “to identify genetic biomarkers and environmental risk factors that are associated with variation in exercise response among participants who undergo a 12 week exercise protocol.” 

See The Game Through The Eyes Of The Quarterback

Going into the start of football season, there is plenty of expert commentary on what makes up the “right stuff” when evaluating quarterbacks. Everything from arm strength to height to foot skills to the size of their hands was measured and dissected to find the magic combination of variables. While the body mechanics of delivering a football on target are vital, QBs rely even more on their vision both before and after the ball is snapped.

It’s not just knowing where and when to look at an opposing defense but also understanding what to look for across the line. Defensive players are taught to “read the eyes” of the quarterback to gain clues to the play call. Coaches ask their QBs, “What are you seeing out there?” or “Where were you looking on that play?” Now, with the help of an innovative helmet cam, coaches, players and maybe even fans can get behind the mask and get answers to those questions.

How To Train The Runner's Brain - An Interview With Jason Fitzgerald

As productive human athletes, we just assume that we can knock down any walls put in front of us and conquer new feats of greatness if "we just put our mind to it."  Our conscious brain sets goals, gives pep talks and convinces us that with the right training plan, we can finish a race of any distance. 

But, when we're stretching our training run farther than ever before, the little voice in our head pops up to try to talk some sense into us; "that's enough for today" or "there's a lot of pain happening right now, time to quit."  

As I discussed in last week's post about the central governor theory, neuropsychologists are finding new ways to acknowledge and actually train the conscious brain to ignore or at least delay the stop orders coming from the subconscious, physiological control center.

In his recent TED talk, David Epstein, author of The Sports Gene, described the brain's circuit breaker role this way;

"Our brain acts as a limiter, preventing us from accessing all of our physical resources, because we might hurt ourselves, tearing tendons or ligaments. But the more we learn about how that limiter functions, the more we learn how we can push it back just a bit, in some cases by convincing the brain that the body won't be in mortal danger by pushing harder."

How exactly can we do that? For practical answers on all things running, my "go-to" source is Jason Fitzgerald, a 2:39 marathoner, USATF-certified coach and founder of Strength Running, a terrific resource of advice and tools helping over 150,000 runners per month.  
I asked Jason about his thoughts on the topic of brain training and for some "try this today" tips that we can all start using.

Fight Fatigue By Overriding Your Brain's Urge To Quit

Tired marathon runner
What makes an endurance athlete quit? Not quit the sport, but quit during a competition.  Every runner, swimmer, or cyclist starts a race with the desire to win or at least achieve a personal best time.  They’ve done the pre-race math - keep at a certain pace for the entire distance to achieve the target time.  Their wearable technology keeps them updated on heart rate, distance and split times to stay on that pace.  

However, at the finish line, many athletes are not able to maintain their strides/strokes per minute, giving in to the perception that their energy tank is empty.

For a long time, it has been assumed that a physiological breakdown must have happened along the way - energy levels were depleted, muscles seized up.  But what if the main limitation to better performance was in the athlete’s head?  There is a growing, and often heated, discussion on the role of the brain in controlling, regulating and even sabotaging an athlete from pushing through perceived physiological fatigue to break through a performance plateau.

Marathons Are Tough On The Heart, But Training Helps

Boston Marathon start line
Now that it’s mid-April, thousands of amateur runners are realizing the time has come to get serious about their Spring marathon training plans.  The easier 4-6 mile weekday jogs increase quickly into 10-15 mile weekend long runs.  For those new to endurance distances, this jump in mileage can put a strain not only on the legs but also on the heart.  

In fact, there’s been some confusing research in the press lately with some claiming a marathon can do some coronary damage while others praising the health benefits of the cardiovascular training.

Maybe Your Kids Don't Want To Play Sports

Girl soccer players on bench
Has this happened to you?  Your daughter comes home from soccer practice and defiantly declares, “I can’t stand my coach, my team is awful and I don’t even like soccer.  I quit!”  Your parental thermostat kicks in as you try to gently lower the temperature in the room with those responses that all kids despise, “Oh, come on now, it can’t be that bad” or “But you’re good at soccer” and finally, “You know our rule, once you start something, you have to finish it. You can’t quit.”

You’ll talk to her coach, you’ll buy her new cleats, even get her on a better team.  But as parents, we often don’t even consider the remote possibility that… wait for it…. our child does not want to play soccer, or basketball or golf or even Aussie rules football.

Well-meaning articles about the tragedy of kids quitting sports are just a Google search away (heck, I even wrote one.)  Usually, we place the blame elsewhere with the assumption that all kids love sports, so if mine doesn’t then something must be wrong with the system.  Instead, we should delve deeper into the unique interests and needs of our son or daughter to find out if there is a better matched activity out there that doesn’t involve a ball, puck or $200 shoes.

Achieving The Rise Of Flow: An Interview With Steven Kotler

Ted Ligety
Ted Ligety
Two years before he stood on the Sochi Olympics podium with a gold medal around his neck, alpine skier Ted Ligety took a trip to Alaska.  There was no qualifying race or Team USA training session, but rather a heli-skiing trek in the Chugach Mountains with a film crew from Warren Miller Entertainment.  The risk level was high, even for one of the best skiers in the world.  But that's what keeps the best on the knife's edge balance of skill and fear.  To survive requires being in the state of Flow.

"The Flow State is a place where the impossible becomes possible, where time slows down and a perfect moment becomes attainable," Director Max Bervy said. "This film reveals what it is like to be completely immersed in the present ... completely immersed in the snow, in the mountains, and in the enjoyment of winter."

After a great performance, many athletes have described a feeling of being “in the zone.” In this state, they feel invincible, as if the game slowed down, the crowd noise fell silent and they achieved an incredible focus on their mission. What is this Superman-like state and how can players enter it when they most need it?

Steven Kotler
Steven Kotler
photo credit: Ryan Heffernan
Steven Kotler, New York Times best-selling author and co-founder and director of research for the Flow Genome Project, has spent over a decade studying Flow as experienced by dozens of unconventional action-adventure athletes. Unconventional in their live-in-the-moment, who-needs-10,000-hours attitudes, these athletes, including snowboarders, surfers and rock climbers, test the limits of their abilities with laser focus.  Anything less and their lives may be in danger.

Released last week, Kotler's new book, "The Rise of Superman: Decoding the Science of Ultimate Human Performance", breaks down the science of Flow and how each of us can learn to use it in our everyday life.

During a recent conversation, Steven and I discussed what all of this means for the future of athlete development.

How To Measure An Athlete's Intangibles

Bob Schafer Prophecy Sciences
Dr. Bob Schafer (seated) of Prophecy Sciences at SSAC14
One of the unmistakable takeaways from the recent MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference is that teams across all sports are looking for the “next big thing” that will offer a competitive advantage.  For most of the 2,000 attendees at this year’s event, the holy grail was assumed to be buried somewhere in the Big Data world of sports statistics and their endless permutations and combinations.  Unfortunately, data of any kind represents the past rather than a true prediction of your team’s future performance. Stats can tell us what happened but struggle to explain the intangibles of athletes, like leadership, tenacity, stress and team chemistry that coaches admit are the real determinants of sports success.

Quietly tucked away in a corner of the conference’s “start-up trade show” was a company demonstrating technology that just might provide the missing proactive measurement of an athlete’s “soft skills”.  Bob Schafer, CEO of Prophecy Sciences, was offering demos of their system to brave souls passing by their booth.  As Dr. Bob (he and his co-founders are Stanford neuroscience PhDs) connected a watch-like device to the left wrist and sensors to the left fingertips of one such brave soul, it became apparent that this system was in a different league than your standard “brain training”.  With an eye tracker staring back at the user and a headset for infrared sensing, a 30 minute set of games begins on the computer screen.