Kaarle McCulloch is tapping into brain-training technology used by US special forces and NBA superstar Steph Curry in her quest to win cycling gold at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
The NSW Institute of Sport athlete, who is expected to be named in ‘s 2018 Gold Coast Commonwealth Games squad, has been using the perceptual-cognitive training software NeuroTracker to shave crucial milliseconds off her sprint times.
???A recurring feeling of panic while racing led to McCulloch consulting her sports psychologist Gerard Faure-Brac in a bid to clear her mind for improved decision-making.
McCulloch has long pursued mindfulness and meditative techniques, but once she started using NeuroTracker, her racing began to improve.
“That’s been probably the thing for me that’s been most exciting about this program is that you can actually see the differences and you can feel the differences,” McCulloch said.
“I’ve had four or five races since I started this program and I feel like I don’t get so nervous when I go into a race now because I know that I have the ability to make the decisions. That small stress taken away is allowing me to race better.
“For me it just shows your brain actually needs to warm up as well, your brain actually gets tired. It’s all things we know from research but I guess we’ve never really had something that’s tangible where you can go ‘this is actually having an effect on me’.”
NSWIS has designed a special room for brain training, which is also being employed by hockey players.
The software itself, combined with 3D glasses, generates a three-dimensional field with eight balls constantly moving around a screen.
At the start of each exercise, the balls pause and four are highlighted before they shoot around the screen once more for a predetermined period of time, usually eight seconds.
When the screen freezes again, McCulloch is asked to label the four balls she was meant to be tracking.
Adding an extra layer of challenge to the exercise are the three different stations set up in the room.
The first is simply a seat in front of the screen. Next is a Bosu ball that forces McCulloch to track the on-screen objects while maintaining her core balance, and thirdly is an exercise bike on which she is required to pedal throughout the exercise.
Plans are already afoot to tailor the program even further, with the idea of turning the bike 180 degrees so McCulloch has to track the balls while looking over her shoulder. During an individual sprint race, McCulloch spends most of her time looking over her shoulder at her opponent.
Each session is plotted on a line graph to track McCulloch’s progress, and the difficulty of the program adjusts depending on how well or poorly she is performing.
McCulloch also tracks her progress on the NeuroTracker in her training diary.
“I was looking back through my comments when I was first starting out on the NeuroTracker and there’s never a time where you actually get comfortable with the software, which I think is really important when you’re training the brain,” she said.
“The balls also change speeds and you can change the different type of session as well and I think that’s really important with brain training because if you become comfortable then you’re not challenging yourself.
“This, in particular, has helped me with the intuition side of things. A lot of sprint racing, you have to have a little bit of intuition because you don’t know what your opponent is going to do.
“The difference between and endurance event and a sprint event is that it happens in 20 seconds so you don’t have much time to recover if you’ve made a bad decision.
“I feel with the NeuroTracker I’m developing my intuitive skills. I feel now I’m a step ahead of my opponent, which is really important and I’m also then in control of the race and in control of what I want to do rather than focusing on the other person, which is the worst thing you can do in a sprint race.”
McCulloch has also learned that she performs much worse on an empty stomach, or if she has just completed a rigorous training session.
On the flip side, her performance on NeuroTracker improves if she’s come straight from a meditation session, or if she’s undergone a physical warm up.
Golden State Warrior Curry said in an interview last year that he had used the software to improve his perception, allowing him to see more options on the basketball court.
Special force commandos have also used the program as part of their virtual war game training.
It’s an area of elite sport which Dr Mike Martin, head of performance psychology at NSWIS, believes will only continue to grow.
“For athletes, what happens is your mind leads your body into performance, the visual cues that you pick up feed into your mind which then allows you to make the right decisions,” Martin said.
“We’re really about trying to help athletes maximise their attentional focus so that they’re getting clear messages into their mind so they can maximise their decision making based off what they’re seeing.
“It’s really kind of been only in the last two-to-three years that this area has really opened up to a consumer level where it’s made it possible for us to actually do meaningful things as far as helping athletes to train their brain.
“The best thing about it all now is there’s some very tangible feedback that can come back to athletes that allows them to see how they can change the function of their brain. That’s really the big piece for us so Kaarle can sit here and go yep I can see my results improving, even as the pressure increases.”
McCulloch won a gold medal at the 2010 Commonwealth Games and a silver at the 2012 London Olympics, but missed selection in 2014 in Glasgow and at the 2016 Rio Games.