Head in the Game The Mental Engineering of the World’s Greatest Athletes

Brandon Sneed

Head in the Game is about the growing use of new technologies to provide feedback on what is taking place in the brain and to use feedback to train the brain and to train the integration of the mind, vision, and body to enhance sports performance. Becoming aware of how our mind is enhancing our performance, or is getting in the way, is important to improve all visual abilities, not just those related to sports. As Yogi Berra is quoted as saying, “90% of the game is half mental”. The technologies are new, but the goals haven’t changed. To be successful, the athletes need to take what they learn from the electronics and practice to make it habitual. It doesn’t matter what you do in practice or in therapy if you can’t consistently apply your new skills to your challenges. The goal is to replace a less efficient behavior with a more efficient behavior and to have the more efficient behavior become more automatic than what you were doing before. The more automatic the behavior becomes, the more resilient it will be to fatigue and stress.

Brandon Sneed’s first example is using an EEG to provide feedback. “I do best when I put myself in a mind-set of relaxed control – not straining, but working, feeling zoned in but calm, thinking only of moving forward…. Most people need at least thirty sessions to get lasting effects from EEG training. Some, even more… It is work which may be why EEG training hasn’t caught on. It’s easy to pop a pill and see when happens, but EEG training feels almost like going to the gym.” This is the same mind-set that patients need to develop when they are learning to align their eyes, to improve processing with their amblyopic eye, and to focus better and to track better. In vision therapy feedback comes from specially designed targets which may also incorporate new technologies.


“The reason why golf is so difficult is because you’re starting the action. Your mind wants to be in control, but the golf swing has to be done on a subconscious level. It’s impossible to think about the thousands of muscles and tendons and ligaments that have to fire in a perfect sequence in a fraction of a second.” I recently blogged on How We Read. The visual components of reading are as complex as the components of swinging a golf club and are even more difficult to observe. And, while both acts are too fast and too complicated to be directed through conscious attention, you quiet your conscious mind while swinging a golf club while in reading your brain must be simultaneously combining current input with prior input from the page, along with previously stored input, while also forecasting what is coming next.


Brandon Sneed appreciates the importance of the placebo and nocebo effects. “Then there’s this stunning example of the nocebo effect: a study at the Oxford Centre for Functional MRI of the Brain in 2011, led by professor of anaesthetic science Irene Tracey. While studying the efficacy of an opioid drug, she found that something that should be effective can be rendered useless after a subject is told it won’t work. That’s right: even though something is scientifically proven to help people – such as a pill – if people decide it’s not going to work, sometimes it won’t.” Supporting people should be an integral component of all care from medicine, to surgery, to therapy, to coaching, to teaching. This is not in lieu of effective treatment, it augments it. If someone becomes a victim and develops learned helplessness. If they become a passive patient instead of a person involved with their care. If the expectations that are placed on them are too high or too soon and they feel that they can’t, working to change that attitude must be part of their care. The teacher is more important than the curriculum. The therapist is more important than the technique. And for coaches see The Talent Code


“To master the mind, first master the body.” The Western World separated the mind and the body at the beginning of the Enlightenment because the connections could not be proven at time. It took hundreds of years for this accepted wisdom to be reversed. So while we are mostly training the brain, we are doing it through the body. “Keeping the mind relaxed yet focused for extended periods of time is hard and a skill almost everyone takes for granted.”

“No performance-enhancing drug or piece of technology can compare to a good night’s sleep.” Research on sleep clearly indicates that it is our brain that needs to rest and not our bodies. This is a little like turning your electronic device off and on to allow it to reset, but our brains take more time.


I share Brandon Sneed’s amazement as it is expressed in the following excerpt. “This brings us to one to one of the most stunning thing’s I’ve learned so far. We have five senses, right? We experience those senses because of specialized cells throughout our body called sensory receptors. Everything you feel, hear, smell, taste, and see comes from those receptors sending the information they gather to your brain. Of all the sensory receptors we have, 70 percent are in our eyes alone. That’s 260 million (130 million per eye) receptors taking information in through the eyes and sending it to the brain, by way of 2.4 million nerve fibers. This adds up to our eyes sending our brain 109 gigabytes of data every second.



“Larry Fitzgerald, the great Arizona Cardinals wide receiver, did vision training as a child with his grandfather, an optometrist. ‘Parents need to understand,’ Fitzgerald once said, ‘that you need over 17 visual skills to succeed. Seeing 20/20 is just one of those. Vision problems can have a serious impact.’ And not just in sports, he added, but also ‘on a child’s education.’”


The Power of Play

Sleights of Mind

What if Everybody Understood Child Development? Part 2

Rae Pica


According to Marcy Guddemi, executive director of the Gesell Institute of Child Development, children are not reaching their developmental milestones any sooner than they did in 1925 when Arnold Gesell first did his research. “One of our misguided expectations right now in the education field is that every child should leave kindergarten reading. Well, not every child is going to leave kindergarten reading.” A child’s development absolutely cannot be accelerated or hurried in any way.


Politicians pander to the ridiculous notion that education is a race. And teachers – from preschool to the primary grades – are being forced to abandon their understanding of what is developmentally appropriate and teach content they know to be wrong for kids.


Demanding that children perform skills for which they’re not yet ready creates fear and frustration in them.

Childhood is not a dress rehearsal for adulthood. It is a separate, unique, and very special phase of life. And we’re essentially wiping it out of existence in a misguided effort to ensure children get ahead.


We do have a great deal of research detailing the impact of stress on the learning process. Dr. William Stixrud sums it up quite nicely when he writes, “stress hormones actually turn off the parts of the brain that allow us to focus attention, understand ideas, commit information to memory and reason critically.”

Studio Screaming Microphone Yelling Boy Sing

The experts insist that today’s children are no less safe than children of my generation. Stranger danger, which tends to top the list of parents’ fears, truly is a myth. According to the U. S. Department of Justice statistics on violent crimes, between 1973 and 2002, out of every thousand children kidnapped, just one of two of them were abducted by strangers. In fact, according to the National Center for Health Statistics, children are four times more likely to die of heart disease than to be kidnapped by a stranger.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA stranger

The pressure for students to spend more time on academics and to pass test after test – to win the race that education has become – is so great that basic human needs are being ignored and unmet.

  • Numerous studies have demonstrated that physically active students perform better in, and have better attitudes toward, school.
  • Movement is the young child’s preferred – and most effective – mode of learning, but we make them sit still regardless. Why do we insist on teaching children in any way other than via their preferred – and most effective – method?

When children move over, under, around, through, beside, and near objects and others, they better grasp the meaning of these prepositions and geometry concepts. When they perform a “slow walk” or skip “lightly”, adjectives and adverbs become much more than abstract ideas. When they’re given the opportunity to physically demonstrate such action words as stomp, pounce, stalk, or slither – or descriptive words such as smooth, strong, gentle, or enormous – word comprehension is immediate and long-lasting. The words are in context, as opposed to being a mere collection of letters.


The Mislabled Child

Thinking Goes to School:Piaget’s Theory in Practice

Reading Instruction in Kindergarten

Worried Sick

A Prescription for Health in an Overtreated America

Nortin M. Hadler, MD

The theme of this book is clearly stated on the first page; “We are becoming increasingly medicalized, made to think that all life’s challenges demand clinical intervention, when the science dictate’s otherwise”. p. 1…

We don’t know why heart attacks are no longer so common or so evil. Medicine deserves little if any credit. But heart attacks are no longer your father’s heart attacks. p. 17

Continue reading

Thinking, Fast and Slow: Daniel Kahneman

Daniel Kahneman received the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences for his research in psychology about how we make decisions. Economic theories, and other models of how we think, assume that we make rational decisions on important matters. Kahneman’s very readable book explains how this is not how we think and decide even though we are convinced that this is the process that we use. Continue reading

Let Them Eat Dirt


Saving Your Child from an Oversanitized World

  1. Brett Finlay and Marie-Claire Arrieta

Despite the catchy title, this book is written by serious scientists who specialize in studying our microbiota. They carefully distinguish between the information which has solid research backing at this time and that which only shows correlations. This is a relatively new field of inquiry (see Gut). While changing the microbiome in adults is more difficult, there are longitudinal studies which support the importance of nurturing a child’s microbiome in their early years and how this can be done. Continue reading

The Hidden Link Between Vision and Learning


Why Millions of Learning-Disabled Children Are Misdiagnosed

Wendy Beth Rosen

The title of this book would not be surprising if it was written by a behavioral optometrist, but Wendy Beth Rosen is an educator who became very upset about the lack of knowledge about vision and learning amongst educators, health-care and related professionals, and parents. She spent two years researching this book which does an excellent job of presenting the research and explaining the costs to our children and society of continuing to ignore this information. She understands that the problem starts with the simplified misunderstanding of vision which makes “vision” easier to understand but is inaccurate and misleading. “Eyesight is the physiological ability to receive input through the eyes. Vision is the ability to understand what the input is.” Vision is not simple. Consider the following:

“To fully grasp the reality of how the root cause of a child’s struggles may be incorrectly diagnosed, consider that fifteen out of the eighteen symptoms linked with AD/HD are also associated with a vision disorder. Thirteen out of the seventeen symptoms of dyslexia can occur with a vision-based learning problem. It is crucial to be aware that no matter how much intervention children get in the form of special education or medication, they will continue to struggle with learning unless their visual disorders are identified and corrected. In cases where there may be multiple disabilities playing out, the visual piece is so enormously influential that to disregard it will reduce the effectiveness of other therapies.”

“Learning-related vision problems are categorized into two areas: visual efficiency skills and visual information processing. Visual efficiency includes the means by which the eyes physically take in information – through the systems of acuity, focus accommodation, vergence, and oculomotility. Visual information processing engages those functions in the brain that are of greater complexity. These skills essentially allow for a person to make sense of what he or she is seeing and derive meaning from it.”mental minusjpeg 002

“When the eyes are not able to move steadily along a line of print due to the inability to automatically maneuver eye movements, tracking difficulties will occur. Precise motions enable us to move through a text, stopping long enough on a word to decode and grasp its meaning. Simultaneously, our peripheral vision is scoping out what lies ahead, preparing us to move forward and take in new information. It’s a delicate dance composed of calibrated jumps and pauses that should flow effortlessly. When eye muscles are not able to control their movements accurately, however, the result is a loss of efficiency and slowed comprehension. Children will often lose their place or skip words and have to go back and reread the text because these interdependent vision systems are not coordinating properly to allow them to read smoothly. Fatigue and frustration set in.”


Focusing problems cause an array of discomforts for children. This skill allows us to quickly shift our focus from near to far distances smoothly. It also involves the ability to hold our focus for an extended period of time, as when we read. In a classroom, this is a way of life. Children who cannot shift their focus efficiently will have a hard time keeping up in school, as they are required to move their eyes from the board to their desk, back and forth, frequently. When reading, they may not have the stamina to hold their focus.”

“Standards by themselves are not a bad thing. It’s when they are set out with inappropriate expectations that they can wreak havoc. ‘There’s nothing wrong with standards or goals, per se. It makes sense to establish a certain level of mastery for children to achieve, and to determine what students should be able to do and know over the course of a particular period of time – a school year, for example,’ writes education consultant and author Rae Pica. ‘But the standards should be realistic. It should be possible for the majority of students to achieve them, each at her or his own pace. That means the standards must also be developmentally appropriate and based on the principles of child development – designed with actual children in mind.’ In glaring contradiction to this logic, Pica points out that there are a combined total of ninety reading and math standards for kindergarten under the new Common Core. All kindergarteners are expected to read according to these standards. She also reveals that of the 135 committee members who wrote and reviewed the Common Core Standards for K – 3, not one of them was a K – 3 educator or professional with expertise in childhood development.”

  “There is overwhelming evidence challenging the myth that homework improves academic performance, raises test scores, or improves learning. Alfie Kohn quotes this statement released by the American Educational Research Association decades ago: ‘Whenever homework crowds out social experience, outdoor recreation, and creative activities, and whenever it usurps time that should be devoted to sleep, it is not meeting the basic needs of children and adolescents. Additionally, he states that no study has ever confirmed the belief that homework generates nonacademic benefits, such as perseverance, independence, self-discipline, and time management skills – tools so critical for success. Furthermore, less positive attitudes toward school and learning are present in kids who get more assignments.”

“As skill requirements have trickled down to lower and lower grade levels, the innate developmental stages that children progress through are being ignored. Social, emotional, and physical developmental needs are receiving less attention because there is a greater emphasis on academics. We know better. This will only cause bigger problems for children as they progress through school without building these skills, so necessary for success in all areas of life, at the appropriate time in the scope of their education.”

“We tend to think of vision and visual functioning as a local task. ‘Vision is a very complex phenomenon, with only a small percentage (less than five percent) of the process taking place in the eyes. The other ninety-five percent of vision takes place in the brain from association with touch, hearing, and proprioception,’ explains Dr. Carla Hannaford.”

“’The child is more than a score,’ declared Dr. Arnold Gesell. These words ring in our minds today in ways he probably could not even have imagined. If we push our kids to take on tasks before they are developmentally ready, the need for special services to fix the damage later on will only increase.”

“When it comes to learning, there is no justification for ‘shoulds’. One cannot force a child to learn. ‘We can only create an environment that encourages and motivates learning,’ points out Dr. Linda Tamm.”

This is the challenge. When educational standards go along with the assumption in our society that faster and more are better, how do we buck the tide for our children? The total experiences of childhood, not just academics, are important for development. Visual skills are but one example. Despite parents’ observations of their children and their intuitions, the pressure to conform is great. They, too, are swept up in the rush. Electronic technology, for all of its benefits, has exacerbated this. It is easy to forget that many skills take time and rehearsal to develop and that too much pressure can interfere.

There are countless examples of professionals being wrong. A powerful, early example for me was that our high school, just outside New York City, did not have sports teams for girls. Girls were thought to not be competitive and sports were not good for their young bodies. I am writing this as the Olympics are taking place. This is just one of many examples that we should not forget.


It is clear that what we are doing is not working for many children. They may be performing as well as their parents were a generation ago but they are behind. Do we really think that children have advanced a whole year in development in one generation? Do we think that they learn better when they are being pushed and are not having fun and experiencing satisfaction? There is ample evidence that attempting to push development in certain areas actually interferes with over-all development. This harm is unnecessary and yet we persist. Without swinging the pendulum in the opposite direction, it is time to give more attention to children, the many skills that they will need to be happy and successful in life, and how those skills develop.


Science, experience, and common sense tell us that we do not all develop at the same speed or at equal speeds in all areas (or that the world would be a better place if we were all the same). Flexible standards can be developed that are commensurate with the ranges of development of different skills. Educational standards and inflexibility should not cause normal children to be unsuccessful due to variations in their pace of development. Why should it be necessary to be identified with special needs? Remember, many children take longer to learn how to ride a bike and yet become equally adept in the long-run if they don’t become discouraged and quit.muddjack