Twente University’s Groundbreaking Brain Activity Study in Sports

Researchers at Twente University analyzing sports brain activity using fNIRS technology.

Researchers from Twente University have leveraged the power of Functional Near Infrared Spectroscopy (fNIRS) to measure on-field brain activity.

Read more: Twente University’s Groundbreaking Brain Activity Study in Sports

Understanding cognitive functions in sports has always posed significant challenges. Traditional tests like the WISC or WAIS provide insights, but real-time sports-specific tests, such as Neurolympics, offer a closer glimpse. In this digital age, technologies like the portable Emotiv Insights allow for practical on-the-spot measurements. Now, a cutting-edge technique – fNIRS – offers an even deeper dive.

Moving Beyond Traditional Methods

Until recently, one of the most prevalent methods of examining the brain’s inner workings was the fMRI. Found mainly in hospitals and research centers, this bulky machine isn’t suitable for on-field applications. Fortunately, 2021 brought forward portable EEG devices, setting the stage for on-field assessments, with Emotiv Insights being a prime example.

The fNIRS Revolution

A breakthrough by researchers at Twente University, including key members like Max WJ Slutter, Nattapong Thammasan, PhD, and Mannes Poel, PhD, from the Faculty of Electrical Engineering, Mathematics, and Computer Science, heralds a new era. They believe that this pioneering study is unique as it employs neuroscience in a real-world sports scenario, stepping out of sterile lab conditions. Their findings, published in Frontiers in Computer Science under the title “Exploring the Brain Activity Related to Missing Penalty Kicks: An fNIRS Study”, suggest that understanding brain behaviors during specific moments can improve sports performance.

Delving into the Study

For this groundbreaking research, 22 volunteers took penalty kicks. Their brain activity was recorded using fNIRS headsets during their run-ups. The study was meticulously designed: first, with an open goal, next against a non-distracting ‘friendly keeper’, and finally, in a high-pressure scenario where distractions were plentiful and stakes were high. Participants ranged from novices to experts, and their brain activations were compared. After each round, they were asked to complete the Sport Anxiety Scale (SAS) to gauge the pressure or anxiety they felt.

Key Findings

The results were illuminating. Players who excelled under pressure showed heightened activation in task-relevant brain regions. For instance, an increased activation of the motor cortex was linked to performing under stress, which makes sense, as motion plays a pivotal role in penalty kicks. On the other hand, players prone to anxiety and missing shots exhibited heightened activity in the prefrontal cortex (PFC), a region associated with cognition, suggesting they might be overthinking potential shot consequences, hampering performance. Seasoned players showed increased activation in the left temporal cortex when anxious, an area related to self-instruction and self-reflection, indicating an overthinking tendency even among the experienced. Researchers also noted that the right PFC activation was predominant in anxious players, irrespective of their expertise level.

A Word of Caution

In a conversation with Brabants Dagblad, head researcher Max Slutter offered a sobering perspective, emphasizing that while certain brain regions play a pivotal role in successful penalty kicks, it remains a human endeavor, and replicating the exact pressure top athletes experience is an almost insurmountable task.

Slutter, Max (2020) Exploring the brain activity related to missing penalty kicks: an fNIRS study.

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