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

The Power of Play

David Elkind

This book addresses the concerns that many of us have about ignoring child development and the ranges of development within a grade level and even within individuals when educational standards are set. David Elkind reminds us that most children are enthusiastic learners in the appropriate circumstances but may be anxiously unsuccessful in other conditions. Continue reading

Who’s in Charge

Michael S. Gazzaniga

There is one excerpt from this book which I feel is particularly powerful. In our ego, we applaud our higher thinking abilities and other than sports, musicians, and some crafts do not highly praise skills which are highly dependent on practice and automaticity. Yet most of what makes all of us function efficiently are those skills which we have developed to an automatic level. Our ocular motor skills are low-level skills on which our perception of the world is reliant. Hours and hours of play and experience are necessary to develop ocular motor and perceptual skills. When that has not taken place naturally, the challenge is for us to develop those skills through vision therapy. To be effective, they must be developed to an automatic level. We can each think of many instances in which conscious thinking really gets in the way. Walking downstairs is just one example. The excerpt below shows to a surprising degree how strong this effect can be.


It is easy to show the difference in timing between automatic responses and those where consciousness intervenes. If I put you in front of a screen and have you push a button when a light flashes on, after a few trials you will be able to do this in about 220 milliseconds. If I ask you to slow this down just a tad, say to 240 milliseconds, you wouldn’t be able to do it. Your speed would be more than 50 percent slower, it would drop to about 550 milliseconds. Once you put consciousness in the loop, your conscious self-monitoring of the speed takes longer, because consciousness works at a slower base speed. This is something that you may already be familiar with. Remember practicing the piano, or any other instrument, and memorizing a piece? Once you had practiced a piece, your fingers could really fly until you made a mistake and consciously tried to correct what you did wrong. Then, you could barely even remember what note was next. You were better off starting all over again and hoping that your fingers would make it past the rough patch on their own. This is why good teachers warn their students not to stop when they make a mistake while playing in a recital, just keep going, keep that automatic playing automatic. The same is true in sports. Don’t think about that free throw, just plop it in as you have the hundreds of times in practice. “Choking” happens when consciousness steps into the play and throws the timing off. Natural selection pushes for nonconscious processes. Fast and automatic is the ticket for success. Conscious processes are expensive. They require not only a lot of time, but also a lot of memory. Unconscious processes, on the other hand, are fast and rule-driven.