🔥 🧠 Upside Article: Introducing the idea of Cognitive Fitness, by Len Zaichkowsky, PhD, World-Class’ Sports Biofeedback Expert

This week, we have the honor to have Len Zaichkowsky, PhD, world’s class expert in biofeedback/psychophysiology, and cognitive fitness, write an article on “The Idea of cognitive fitness”. Of note, Len has worked with many elite pro teams (Warriors (NBA), Penguins (NHL), Vancouver Canucks (NHL), Real Madrid, National Spanish soccer team…) over the years. Len is going to write a series of articles for the Upside on biofeedback, psychophysiology, and cognitive fitness, . Today we are publishing his first article.

Title: Introducing the idea of Cognitive Fitness

By Len Zaichkowsky, PhD

Coaches and athletes in every sport including e-sports understand the importance of being physically fit in order to compete at the highest levels.  And most athletes could describe what makes up physical fitness.  This would include factors such as: strength, power, agility, speed, flexibility, balance, and cardiovascular endurance.  Over the years, sport scientists, exercise physiologists, and strength and conditioning coaches have learned how to define and measure the factors of physical fitness, and how to train the critical components. It is quite likely that many of you are not familiar with the history of Physical Fitness and particularly Strength training for athletes.  So here is a brief historical account authenticated by the legendary strength coach Vern Gambetta, a teacher of many.

Although college sport, and professional sport leagues as well as the modern Olympic Games are all over 100 years old, systematic strength and conditioning training  did not start until strength training was introduced at LSU in 1958 by Alvin Roy who later went on to work with the San Diego Chargers in 1962.  Boyd Epley at the University of Nebraska in the late 1960’s and early 70’s  helped convince coaches globally that strength training did indeed enhance athlete performance and strength training did not make athletes slower—a major myth at that time. Today it would be unheard of for athletes in any sport to train without a Strength & Conditioning coach to train Physical Fitness 

What is interesting is that we do not really have an equivalent categorization for “brain fitness”, or fitness from the neck up, or what I would like to call “Cognitive Fitness”.  Indeed we have something we refer to as “Sport Psychology” or  “Mental Skills for Sport”, and often times sport psychologists that provide counseling/coaching services, but this specialization did not appear on the global stage until the early 1980’s, first with Olympic athletes. In fact, I started one of the first graduate training programs in North America at Boston University in the mid 1980’s. So this hopefully gives you a sense of how new psychology is to the world of sport.  For a variety of reasons sport psychology, unlike strength & conditioning remained underdeveloped, but things are changing and I would like to have Upside members take advantage of this new information that is based on solid brain science. 

For a few years now I have been working with Australian psychologist, Dr. Eugene Aidman in  developing a Cognitive Fitness framework.  In January of 2020, Dr. Aidman published what I think will be a groundbreaking paper not only for high performance sport but high performance in many other domains. The article appeared in the prestigious scientific journal, “Frontiers in Human Neuroscience”, the title being “Cognitive Fitness Framework: Towards Assessing, Training, And Augmenting Individual-Difference Factors Underpinning High-Performance Cognition”.  Here “high performance” applies not only to sport, but to the military, aerospace, surgery and emergency medicine, education, the performing arts and the corporate world. For those of you that would like to read the original paper here is the citation: Aidman E (2020) Cognitive Fitness Framework: Towards Assessing, Training and Augmenting Individual-Difference Factors Underpinning High-Performance Cognition. Front. Hum. Neurosci. 13:466. doi: 10.3389/fnhum.2019.00466 

Dr. Aidman is a former high level track athlete from Moscow, but now is a distinguished research scientist for the Australian military, plus has academic appointments at the University of Sydney and University of New Castle in New South Wales, Australia. I am now working with Dr. Aidman and a large panel of international experts on further defining what makes up cognitive fitness, how to measure it, and how to train it. You should know that just like Physical Fitness, Cognitive Fitness is not only important for one’s athletic career, but also for life after formal competition, where having a fit and healthy body and sharp, healthy mind is essential. 

As you can imagine the Cognitive Fitness Framework is quite extensive, so at this time I will focus on the most important components of athletic performance. The three pillars of the performance mindset are: 1. Staying Focused, 2. Staying Calm, 3. Being Flexible when faced with Pressure/Stress, and Challenges.

But there are other primary cognitive capacities that are critical to staying calm, focused and flexible.  They include having a strong personal self-awareness, situational awareness,  solid memory, task switching ability, resistance to distraction, impulse control, and an understanding of how you can optimally use imagery skills, as well as learning to use your breath to regulate your thoughts, emotions and actions.  

Similar to physical power and strength and endurance, cognitive fitness can be improved through deliberate, focused training, but it takes a long-term investment in time and willingness to get better. The “gold standard” for physical fitness training consists of : 1. Isolating the specific muscle groups, 2. Overloading the specific system, 3. Recovering from the training. The same holds true for Cognitive Training.  We provide you with exercises that will put the brain and nervous system in pressure situations, we overload it by doing “over speed training for the brain, and placing you in a zone of discomfort. Then the brain has to recover after this workout.  The good news is that recovery methods for cognition overlap with physical recovery methods.  That is we use the best science from sleep research, nutrition research, and mindfulness/meditation to facilitate the recovery of the brain. And of course we cannot forget the importance of social support from your teammates, coaches, friends, and significant others. I trust this brief introduction to the idea of  “Cognitive Fitness” will help move the conversation forward.

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