The Debates and Implications of Brain Training in Sports

Ian Renshaw presenting research on Brain Training in Sports.

For years, I’ve delved into scientific literature highlighting the benefits of ‘Brain Training’ within sports. However, not everyone concurs with these findings. Dive into Ian Renshaw’s comprehensive research to get an unfiltered view on this.

Read more: The Debates and Implications of Brain Training in Sports

Decoding Perceptual & Cognitive Training:

Perceptual and cognitive training are terms I frequently encounter. Simplified, they target enhancing visual perceptions and decision-making. Athletes, coaches, and clubs are constantly in pursuit of methods granting them a slight edge. Numerous companies have indeed designed computer games with the aim of making players smarter and more alert. These brain game effects can be found extensively in scientific databases. Yet, skepticism towards such brain training is also escalating.

A Deep Dive into Renshaw’s Research:

Ian Renshaw, from Queensland University in Australia, co-authored a revealing book titled “Nonlinear pedagogy in skill acquisition: an introduction.” In his recent research, Renshaw, alongside his team, centers on the outcomes of digital brain trainings in sports. It’s predicted that by 2021, the market for generic cognitive trainers will reach a staggering $8 billion. I recently penned a blog addressing the transfer value of digital cognitive trainers in sports. A focal point of this blog revolved around the transition between these digital cognitive trainers and real-world applications. Renshaw seeks to deepen our understanding of this transition.

Ecological Dynamics: The Core Concept:

A critical term Renshaw employs is ‘Ecological Dynamics.’ This encompasses the relationship between perception, action, cognition, and how it interacts with the athlete, task, and environment. Adapting to dynamic situations is crucial in many sports. By this, Renshaw alludes to an athlete’s adaptability to continually shifting tasks and environments. An athlete’s environment and individuality (both body and brain) are interlinked during training and matches. Contrary to many brain trainers focusing on specific elements, from an ecological dynamics perspective, training just the eyes and brain appears limited. More is required than mere eye movements and pressing buttons, according to Renshaw. Instead, it’s about addressing the athlete as a whole rather than isolated body parts.

Challenging the Status Quo of Brain Training:

Brain trainers predominantly aim to elevate specific cognitive functions. The premise is that these enhanced cognitive skills will then guide the body towards success. Nonetheless, as Renshaw points out, empirical evidence supporting this theory remains elusive. I concur with Renshaw’s findings, as evidenced by our study with MVV’s first team. Players underwent a 5-week Cogmed working memory training, and my role was to assess its transfer to the football field. Sadly, tangible results were scarce. What this research underscores is that reliance solely on specific brain training – be it a computer game or an explicit field training using SMARTGOALS – isn’t enough. For genuine improvement, environmental factors, including challenges and tasks, must be considered.

Concluding Thoughts:

This study has once again ignited my reflections. The cognitive domain continually captivates me. Renshaw’s critical research serves as a stark reminder: the label of ‘specific brain training’ should be applied with caution, as it raises the question – are we genuinely training what we aim for?


Renshaw I, Davids K, Araújo D, Lucas A, Roberts WM, Newcombe DJ and Franks B (2019) Evaluating Weaknesses of “Perceptual-Cognitive Training” and “Brain Training” Methods in Sport: An Ecological Dynamics Critique. Front. Psychol. 9:2468. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2018.02468 

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