Staying mentally sharp, according to Toronto Blue Jays All-Star right fielder Jose Bautista, is one of the biggest challenges in Major League Baseball.
“We don’t get to practice that too much,” the veteran slugger tells SI.com. “We practice everything else, catching, running and batting. We neglect our minds and brains.”
That’s why Bautista was quick to jump on the new HeadTrainer app, which was designed in conjunction with Duke University professor of neurology and psychiatry Deborah Attix, and features games designed specifically to keep athletes mentally sharp.
“Normally this would have to be done with a mental coach or psychologist,” Bautista says. “That is not convenient, it is time-consuming and expensive. Teams don’t want to pay for it. This you can do whenever you have five to 10 minutes. It is effective. That is the main thing. It is just you and app. You go at it. It is entertaining and fun.”
Attix, a clinical neuropsychologist, has studied cognitive abilities for decades and says the appeal of HeadTrainer was that it gave her access to precise measurements of cognitive abilities.
“This is an element hugely missing in rehabilitation and cognitive improvement,” she tells SI.com. “HeadTrainer is this beautiful crossroads where we take relevance and science of measurement and rehabilitation together to improve cognition.”
Released in mid-June, the app offers an ever-growing stable of more than a dozen games, each tailored individually to a person’s ability, that push athletes in both those areas in which they prove proficient and in those areas in which they need work. Attix says that to make the app appealing, HeadTrainer needed a tool that was engaging. According to Attix, that meant picking the right processing speed and creating engaging, sports-relevant visuals for each game, so that athletes would want to use the device. Then, as they engage in the app, HeadTrainer can analyze data in a way that allows the games to evolve.
“For me, who has built a career in this area of measurement and intervention, that was really the must,” Attix says. “We don’t just need a shiny object, we need one based on sound theory that we continue to test and refine.”
Attix says that the arrival of HeadTrainer signals a new frontier in the athletic world. “More and more we are recognizing we can improve function through practice and strategic challenges,” she says. Cognition is part of athletic play. We spend lots of time and energy and money in learning plays and physical function. We are seeing now scientifically and in locker rooms peoples’ mental state and cognition really matters.”
Bautista agrees. “It has been pretty good for me,” he says. “When I feel I need it, I jump on it. I come back the next day and expect my mind to be sharp.”
He uses the example of being asked to bunt in a pressure situation. “If you practice it 50 times right before, it would be easier,” he says. “It is the same thing when it comes to your brain. You don’t want to get overwhelmed by information where your brain is not allowed to go and do its thing. I can deal with obstacles and distractions better.”
Bautista says he uses the app on his phone and has encouraged teammates to give it a try without pushing it down their throats. “Just like anything in major professional sports, a lot of guys who are skeptical initially just have to take the first step forward,” he says.
But baseball isn’t the only avenue HeadTrainer has started down. The app is already being used by Richard Sherman, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Alex Morgan, Rickie Fowler and Caroline Wozniacki. According to Attix, the common ground across all sports is that processing speed is important. So instead of pinpointing skills specific to sports, HeadTrainer has put a focus on processing speed.
“The ability to accurately scan and perceive and integrate is very important to most sports,” Attix says. “We took those constructs of cognition and built the app around that.”
Sharpening the brain. That’s a universal need. A need not normally part of regular training.
Tim Newcomb covers stadiums, design and gear for Sports Illustrated. Follow him on Twitter at @tdnewcomb.