⭐🧠 Upside Analysis: This is Sports' Secret Sauce.
In sports, it’s all about the advantage.
What can one team do — both in preparation, scouting and training off the court — and how can they learn and apply from those lessons to win on the court?
Ever since Moneyball, larger contingents of fans have seen a very public look at how teams are constantly looking for the next thing that will give them a boost, and hopefully a championship.
Believe it or not, we’ve already come pretty far from the days when Billy Beane tried to outsmart bigger and richer ball clubs with his sabermetrics and scouting techniques. Today, the approach of embracing advanced metrics has not only continued to thrive in baseball front offices, but it has also taken hold of other professional sport leagues.
When Brad Stevens was hired to coach the Boston Celtics, one of his first hires was Drew Cannon, a statistician and writer from Basketball Prospectus, who joined the ranks of Celtics staff. Cannon worked closely with Stevens at Butler when the team rose from the mediocrity of the mid-major Horizon League to make two back-to-back national title game appearances (2010, 2011). Cannon’s specialty was lineup evaluation, which complements Stevens’ in-game play calling quite well.
The Milwaukee Bucks, who will be making their first Eastern Conference Finals appearance since 2001, have also embraced advanced metrics. They hired Seth Partnow, formerly of Nylon Calculus, as their director of basketball research, where a majority of his time is spent diving into, and evaluating the numbers that give the team the most favorable outcome possible.
Whether you’re a fan or a seasoned observer of professional sports, you know that advanced metrics and statisticians are impacting not only teams, but they are also starting to have an impact in other defining aspects of games from scouting to in-game action.
But, there’s another arena of sports that is equally fascinating and it has quietly been taking root in many of the most forward-thinking organizations as a way for teams to evaluate and train players to prepare them for the moments that matter most.
One of the most interesting, and little known areas teams are looking at right now involves the mind. Just as the brain has remained one of the last frontiers of medicine in terms of what we know about it — so, too, has it remained one of the last untapped aspects of sport. Because of this, many teams have remained very quiet about what their involvements are and their application of neuroscience.
This week were taking a deep look at the sports neurotech market.
Over the past 10 years, many professional sports teams have used neurofeedback to help players be ‘in the zone’ or remain relaxed during key games.
As Professor Olivier Oullier, the President of EMOTIV, the global leader in personalized neuroinformatics pointed out: “Monitoring your heartbeat, and the way you breathe to lower your biorhythms is called biofeedback.”
That being said, neurofeedback also known as biofeedback has remained a secret sauce for many pro teams who are for the most part reluctant to talk about this aspect of the mental training. “It's somewhat of a secret sauce that not a lot of teams want to disclose”, Professor Olivier Oullier continues. Some experts even argue that neurofeedback in sports like soccer had somewhat of an impact on the outcome of the 2006 World Cup Final between France and Italy. It was publicly mentioned in an article from the Wall Street Journal. Can we attribute the win of the Italian team against France in the 2006 World Cup Final to neurofeedback? Oullier explains:
“Not exclusively of course, but the fact that most of the players that were on that Italian team back then were playing in teams that were from the Italian championship (the Calcio) like AC Milan, Roma, Juventus FC is not a coincidence. Basically all these teams were known for being very advanced, back then, in terms of physical and mental preparation. [...] It is one thing to prepare for physical activity, resistance, endurance, or explosive power, but if you don't prepare your athletes to keep their composure, stay focused, regardless of what happens, you are missing out.”
Not surprisingly, in the last four years, investments in the neurotech startup space has doubled, growing from $1.25B in 2014 to $2.5B in 2018. Some of the key players in the space include companies like Emotiv, Muse, and NeuroSky.
Source: CB Insights, 2018
As shown in the table below, what’s driving those investments is the growing number of neurological disorders affecting 1B people across the globe today. Today, one-in-six of the world’s population suffers from a neurological disorder. Migraines are the most prevalent type of neurological disorder, affecting 1.1BM people globally. Depression comes second, affecting 350M people today, followed by autism which is impacting 75M people globally. Epilepsy, bipolar disorders and schizophrenia are also affecting 65M, 60M and 50M individuals, respectively, globally. This is where neuroscience technologies can help better understand those disorders, but more importantly it can help improve the lives of many of the people affected by such disorders
In this analysis, we’ll provide an overview of the neurotech sports segments, the key players, and current and future trends.
Let’s start by defining the key neurotech sports segments:
(1) Neurosensing: These firms include manufacturers of electrophysiological and magnetoencephalography systems that are designed to better monitor and understand brain activity. Components involved in this include electrodes, electrode caps, signal processing hardware, wireless monitoring systems, and related hardware and software.
(2) Brain computer interface (BCI): A brain–computer interface (BCI), sometimes called a neural-control interface (NCI), mind-machine interface (MMI), direct neural interface (DNI), or brain–machine interface (BMI), is a direct communication pathway between an enhanced or wired brain and an external device. BCI differs from neuromodulation in that it allows for bidirectional information flow. BCIs are often directed at researching, mapping, assisting, augmenting, or repairing human cognitive or sensory-motor functions. Key players in this space include companies like iBand+ (headband), Muse (headband), EMOTIV, NeuroSky, NeuroLutions, Kernel, OpenBCI, Ripple, BrainCo, to name a few. Of note, many BCI players are also specialized in neurosensing.
(3) Neurostimulation: Neurostimulation is the purposeful modulation of the nervous system's activity using invasive (e.g. microelectrodes) or non-invasive means (transcranial magnetic stimulation or transcranial electric stimulation, tES, such as tDCS or transcranial alternating current stimulation, tACS). Neurostimulation usually refers to the electromagnetic approaches to neuromodulation. Neurostimulation technology can improve the life quality of those who are severely paralyzed or suffering from profound losses to various sense organs, as well as for permanent reduction of severe, chronic pain which would otherwise require constant (around-the-clock), high-dose opioid therapy (such as neuropathic pain and spinal-cord injury). The leading players in the space are Halo Neuroscience, Neurometrix, NeuroSigma, DBI, Boston Scientific, Caputron, Flow, Vielight, Aleva, to name a few.
(4) VR & neuroscience: These are typically solutions that “visualize” brain wave activities of a VR user through the use of a EEG monitoring headband. Companies focusing on this area include companies like EMOTIV or NeuroSky. Companies like Neurable have even built a VR training system for eSports gamers.
Source: Sports Tech Advisors, 2019
👓 🏋🏻 Training and Neurofeedback Mechanism
⬆️ The Upside: As we mentioned before, Neurofeedback (or biofeedback), is a training technique that has been used for many years by some of the best teams (Real Madrid, AC Milan) in the world to help players be in the “zone” during the most crucial moments. In recent years, VR has brought a new dimension to the game. We believe that in the future an increasing number of pro teams will use solutions combining VR with neuroscience / EEG monitoring bands capable of measuring the brain wave activities of players. The goal? Better train athletes mentally so they can better perform during live games and on the world’s biggest stages. For example, San Jose based startup Neurosky built a VR training system capable of training athletes so they can be in the zone during key situations. Some Olympic teams have already used such system. The company also teamed up in December 2018, with MyndPlay to build MyndSport - a software for personal neurofeedback training with a smartphone. It includes brain-training programs, mind-controlled apps, and enable GPS tracking so that users can record their brain response to everything that happens.
Another angle is the impact of mental health on players. As leagues like the NBA start to think more about the emotional and mental well-being of their athletes, neurofeedback and training will start to be important in arenas far beyond that of the ones on the field — they’ll start to see an emphasis in mental health, limiting stress, and ensuring players are in the right frame of mind. This will be an equally important aspect to much of the neurotech landscape in the future.
Picture: Myndsport’s VR training system using Neurosky’s EEG monitoring band
Picture: MyndPlay’s MyndSport.
NeuroSky is not the only player in town. L.A.-based startup Neurable built a development kit that enables users to create virtual reality experiences controlled by the mind. The headset captures EEG data that is translated into user commands by our API. Their goal is to measure brain wave activities of the best eSports gamers and train them and others to up their game. They also plan to apply their training system to other sports (soccer, football), so there’s a great opportunity in pro sports here.
Source: Neurable’s neuroscience training solution
Neuroscience startup EMOTIV is another leading company in the world of VR training using neurofeedback. As we mentioned in some previous analyses, it has worked with major sports leagues and athletes to help them improve the players’ performance. It is also worth pointing out that EMOTIV teamed up with The FIA and built a VR simulator that can measure drivers’ brainwaves and display them in VR in real-time to better understand how distractions and altered perception can put people’s life at risk while they drive.
Picture: Emotiv’s VR simulator
EMOTIV even went one step further by enabling drivers to control cars with their brain. In fact, it put four-time Formula 1 world champion Lewis Hamilton to the test as he accepted a challenge to compete in a car controlled only by his mind. Hamilton was challenged to a race by quadriplegic racer Rodrigo Hübner Mendes – who became the first person to drive an F1 car using brainwaves, according to TechRadar. And while Hamilton was speaking recently at an education conference in Dubai, Mendes threw out the unexpected challenged.
The picture below is the picture of Mendes driving a race car using his brain. Click here to watch the video and see exactly how this works.
Picture: Quadriplegic racer Rodrigo Hübner Mendes – who became the first person to drive an F1 car using brainwaves
😧 Neuroscience and stress management:
⬆️ The Upside: Another very important area where neuroscience can be very useful is stress management. Over the past few years we have seen the emergence of a new wave of sports neurotech companies who have developed advanced systems allowing pro teams and athletes to better manager their level of stress. One of those companies is EMOTIV, which has built a coaching system as part of it.
“EMOTIV’s approach not only consists in providing the hardware but also the entire ecosystem that goes with it, such as cloud computing, and translational machine learning algorithms to monitor in real time people’s attention. We are doing this to better understand why they are stressed, then ultimately to create evidence-informed strategies and coaching systems to train people to be in control, to not only feel better, but also perform better”, explains Prof. Olivier Oullier President of EMOTIV.
EMOTIV is also allowing athletes to vizualize the fact that they are lowering their less level:
“What we provide is translational and machine learning algorithms that allow in real time to give feedback on the users’ levels of stress and attention. Easy to understand. And then you can combine this neurofeedback with your training strategies in order for athletes or executives to really visualize the fact that they're lowering their stress level.”, Prof. Olivier Oullier continues.
But EMOTIV is not the only player in town. Another company focusing on this emerging area is REBALANCE Impulse .
Picture: REBALANCE Impulse’s mobile app and system
Theyve developed an equipment dedicated to preventing and alleviating chronic stress. They combined neurotechnology, with apply neurosciences, color and sound therapy to create an effective stress-reducing experience.
Picture: REBALANCE Impulse.
So how does it work? The REBALANCE program is both personalized and able to evolve over time. It adapts and adjusts in real time thanks to data transmitted by its various sensors (neurofeedback and biofeedback). The user can use an app to view the results of each session (REBALANCE indices). After a few 30-minute sessions, and sometimes after just the first one, each user discovers his or her ideal relaxation method and unlocks the keys to controlling stress in the long term. Stress diminishes, the level of vitality increases, these are the signs of balance being restored. This type of solution also enables other benefits such as full neuromuscular release, an increased ability to concentrate and memorize, better-quality sleep, faster recovery, stronger immune system, improved acid/alkaline balance. It also protect and stimulate telomerase, which has an anti-aging effect, and enable athletes to better channel their energy.
“Rebalance Impulse acts directly on the rebalancing and regeneration of the autonomic nervous system. Thanks to the various sensors of neurofeedback and biofeedback, our software determines for each athlete what is the combination of cognitive and respiratory exercises that allows him on the one hand to manage his stress in the long term, and on the other hand to find the routine that it allows him to dissolve the stress as soon as it appears and to find, in a few seconds, his cardiac coherence, his motor neuro preferences and his maximum concentration abilities,” explained Philippe Avice, cofounder and CEO of REBALANCE Impulse.
One cannot replace an athlete’s natural talent and skills, but it’s undeniable that sports neurotech solutions are playing an increasingly important role in the mental training of top athletes who have to be at their best all the time.
An important differentiator here — while the neurotech market is impacting their emotional and mental training, it is also complementing their physical play. Because the mind and the brain has been such a little-known part of our body, it has also taken a lot longer for the advances to trickle down from medicine, research, and science to reach the ranks of sports. But, where we’ve also seen impacts from stretching and training and working out in advance of playing actual games — we’ll definitely start to see teams and players striving to “work out” their brains in increasingly interesting ways that actually lead to better development, smarter talent evaluation, and increased performance in games.
“It is one thing to prepare for physical activity, resistance, endurance, or explosive power, but if you don't prepare your athletes to keep their composure, stay focused, regardless of what happens, you are missing out” — summarizes Professor Olivier Oullier President of EMOTIV.
With that in mind we expect more pro teams and leagues to adopt sports neurotech solutions in the coming years, especially the ones that combine stress management systems. Will neurotech solutions be the X-factor in the next World Cup, World Series or Super Bowl? One thing is for sure — it will sure be fun watching to find out.