Cognitive training

Competing in sports requires a huge amount of time, effort and physical capacity. To achieve significant results, athletes must be able to express strength, speed and power while maintaining a high level of technical performance. These qualities are developed through physical training on the field, on the track or in the gym. However, an increasing number of studies suggest that cognitive training in sports can also play a decisive role in improving performance.

Since the 1950s, various research studies have been carried out to understand the functional organization of the auditory and somatosensory nervous system. Many studies have tackled the concept of brain plasticity, that is the idea that the brain can change at any age, responding to circumstances and new stimuli. Dr. Michael Merzenich (one of the pioneers in this field, US neuroscientist at the University of California in San Francisco – and with whom Microgate has had the pleasure of collaborating for some years) has been able to demonstrate that the plasticity of the brain is a physical process. Gray matter can actually shrink or thicken, neural connections can be forged and refined or (on the contrary) weakened and cut. Changes in the physical brain manifest themselves in our capabilities and can be stimulated at any age. The concept of Cognitive Training has therefore developed by looking for what brain mechanisms to target and how to exercise them effectively: to date there are scientifically proven, non-invasive solutions that can work on them in a focused manner.

Cognitive sports training is therefore still under development: although it has been used in practice for several years, different applications have shown different degrees of effectiveness [1]. Cognitive sports training comprises a wide range of exercises designed to improve various aspects of athletic performance not only on a psychological level (contributing to the development of self-confidence, motivation, mental strength, stress management and pre-competition anxiety), but also to improve technical competence in various sports situations.

Cognitive training therefore aims to maintain or improve the capabilities of a person through brain stimulation, acting on cerebral plasticity and increasing the number of neural connections [2]. There are scientifically structured programs that focus on various cognitive areas and improve brain functions. These protocols train one to perform some specific “mental acts” during a task and then become accustomed to performing them unconsciously during a sports movement. After an evaluation of the initial level it is possible, thanks to these non-invasive and scientifically proven solutions, to go to work in a focused manner on the mechanisms of neuronal plasticity with protocols that can be adapted to the individual person's capabilities. Some examples are given below.

Thanks to the collaboration with Prof. Michael Merzenich, Microgate has for some years by now married the BrainHQ approach (the only brain training platform created and developed on the basis of 30 years of neuroscience research). The exercises proposed are fun and adapted to the individual user. They are designed to provide useful and meaningful training for each subject and in different areas: attention, cognitive speed, memory, sociality, orientation, and intelligence (see Figure 1).

Figure 1 The image shows two screenshots of the BrainHQ platform. On the left is the home screen of a double decision exercise designed to exercise attention. On the right, a user's screen appears with their percentile placement in each category based on the data from a cohort of subjects of the same age

Some of these exercises, in particular those used in the development of motor activities (Attention and Speed), were imported exclusively into the Witty SEM system. The innovative proposal is therefore the combination of 360° motor tasks on user-definable distances, with cognitive-specific exercises in order to train the entire cognitive-motor system in an integrated way (see Figure 2).

Motor evaluations (for which Microgate offers OptoJump and Gyko) “disturbed” by a cognitive load are also very interesting: in this case, we speak of dual tasking (i.e. simultaneous execution of an active movement and a mental task such as running while solving visual or mathematical tasks). Some people have difficulty in handling this type of situation and the inability to perform a motor task when attention is attracted by a cognitive stimulus (which in real life can be represented by any distractor such as fatigue, negative thoughts, visual disturbance, ...) creates a drop in performance and leads to a condition of danger to physical safety. This is why it is important to maintain high performance in dual tasking, through focused and constant training

Figure 2 The photo shows a subject intent on performing one of the cognitive training exercises implemented in Witty SEM

Figure 3 The photo shows a subject while performing a dual-tasking workout that requires solving a cognitive exercise with WittySEM during the walk.

The very act of practising sport has positive effects on cognitive function and these effects are comparable to the impact that cognitive training can have on sports performance [3]. Practising a sport limits the decline of age-related cognitive functions, saving even the loss of brain tissue. Moreover, it has been shown that maintaining a high level of physical fitness through sport improves the efficiency of the neural pathways responsible for memory and attention. As a result, those individuals who most frequently participate in sports activities are much more efficient in receiving and processing environmental stimuli and other types of perceived information. In conclusion, therefore, sport improves almost every aspect of health and cognitive function as cognitive training can improve almost every aspect of sport and/or everyday life.


[1]          C. C. Walton, R. J. Keegan, M. Martin, and H. Hallock, “The Potential Role for Cognitive Training in Sport: More Research Needed,” Front. Psychol., vol. 9, Jul. 2018, doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2018.01121.

[2]          M. M. Merzenich, T. M. Van Vleet, and M. Nahum, “Brain plasticity-based therapeutics,” Front. Hum. Neurosci., vol. 8, 2014, doi: 10.3389/fnhum.2014.00385.

[3]          F. Gomez-Pinilla and C. Hillman, “The influence of exercise on cognitive abilities,” Compr. Physiol., vol. 3, no. 1, pp. 403–428, Jan. 2013, doi: 10.1002/cphy.c110063.