Brain Game

by: Steve Tignor | January 26, 2012

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MbMELBOURNE—“Tennis players are always talking about the zone, getting into the zone,” Mike Bryan told me last week at the Australian Open. “I feel like I’m starting to know what it feels like.”

Tomorrow night, Mike, with his twin brother Bob, will try to break Mark Woodforde and Todd Woodbridge’s men’s record 11 Grand Slam titles. The Bryans are 33 and still going strong. They’re coming off what Mike calls “their best summer ever"; in 2011 they won the Wimbledon and Australian Open titles, recorded their 700th career win together, and finished the season No. 1.

Playing championship tennis into your 30s, and beyond, is not uncommon in doubles. In fact, you might say the Bros are about to enter their primes. The player ranked just below them, at No. 3 in the world, is Daniel Nestor. He'll be 40 in September.

Still, Mike says he’s in a good mental space these days. He credits some of that to brain-training sessions that he’s been undergoing at the offices of a company called Neurotopia in California. Neurotopia, according to one of its founders, James Seay, was begun, “as a medical group providing therapy for chronic symptoms associated with conditions like migraines, concussions, ADHD and ADD.”

Patients’ brain waves were mapped, to see where there were irregularities. Did he or she have trouble focusing, or recovering from stress, or processing information quickly? Treatments were developed to help re-balance brain waves—essentially, to train it like any other muscle.

The following year, Neurotopia began working with athletes in extreme sports, who needed their focus and reaction time to remain sharp over a long period of time. From there, the company has begun to help athletes from virtually all mainstream professional sports, from Nascar to major league baseball to golf to surfing to tennis and more.

“The brain,” Seay says, “like anything else, thinks it’s perfect. We try to fix problems that are there. In the case of athletes, we try to help improve the areas where they need to be strong.”

“It’s pretty wild,” says Mike Bryan, who has done close to 20 mental-training sessions with Neurotopia, and who hopes to begin doing them remotely on the road soon.

The company’s technology certainly has a futuristic feel. It works like this: Sensors are placed on your head, which reads your brainwaves as you take a simple test where you’re asked to recognize visual stimuli and push buttons when you see them. From the results, a “profile” of your brain and personality is created. You’re rated in various mental categories, including Stress Recovery, Focus, and Reaction Time.

Neurotopia_2-lgI went through Neurotopia’s testing process this winter and received a psychological profile. It showed that I’m able to concentrate for long periods, but that I have trouble recovering from stress—both of these diagnoses sounded about right. They’re also common among tennis players, though the pros also tend to rate very highly when it comes to reaction time.

With your mental profile in hand, therapy sessions begin. Sensors are attached to your head again, and you’re placed in front of a screen with what looks like a car chase video game on it. Except that there are no controls in front of you, no wheels or sticks or buttons. When I started my session, all Seay told me to do was, “concentrate.” I wasn’t sure what that meant, but I looked at the car and it began to move. It kept moving. It picked up speed and made turns and went over bridges and crashed into the car in front of it (which it wasn't supposed to do; it's a sign that you're trying too hard). I wasn’t doing anything, or thinking of anything in particular, and I began to wonder whether I really was moving the car. But when someone in the room with me spoke, and I answered, the car screeched to a halt.

The idea is that moving the car will train you, unconsciously, to concentrate harder when you need to concentrate—i.e., during a tennis match—and to relax at other times—i.e., when you want to sleep. The car I was moving was at the easiest level. As sessions continue, it gets more difficult to move it, and your ability to concentrate fully and get into the right frame of mind for the task at hand is enhanced.

“By training certain waves to work harder at certain times,” Seay says, “we can change what your mind considers a normal reaction.”

“I’ve got the car moving pretty well,” Mike says of his improvement over the course of his sessions. “I used to overdo it, and it would crash, but now I’ve got it going pretty smoothly.

“I’ve felt a difference on court,” he continues. “I feel like I can hold my focus longer, and I feel like I can turn it on when I need it. I wanted my body to be relaxed while my mind was working, and that's how I feel. I can get into an optimal brain state out there, and I can control my reactions when I miss a shot a little more. Hey, we had our best summer last year, and I’m sleeping better, too.”

Hard to believe? Brain training for athletes, according to Seay and others involved, is in its early stages, and no one knows where it will lead or what it will reveal. One doctor told me that the field is promising, but we need more information to see if it can be useful. Mike’s brother, Bob, for one, has resisted, despite his brother’s recommendation.

“Bob’s skeptical of just about everything,” Mike says. “He doesn’t believe in stretching.”

Skepticism is the healthy reaction, perhaps, but for any tennis player, the possibilities are enticing. Imagine being able to get over your nerves or your tendency to choke or lose focus, the same way you can increase your muscle strength or make yourself more flexible?

“I wanted to be more like Federer, you know,” Mike says, laughing. He hopes to join the Swiss Maestro as a Grand Slam record holder this weekend.

“But I needed a little help on that front.”

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