Train Your Brain


IntelliGym is a software program that seeks to develop spatial awareness in hockey players through something resembling the old game Asteroids. The company has also developed a version for basketball. The product, by Applied Cognitive Engineering whose CEO is Danny Dankner, is based on one developed to train pilots in the Israeli air force, where Dankner served as an officer.

What is interesting about the product is how it flies in the face of generally accepted wisdom about a skill/attribute such as situational and spatial awareness, which is that these are skills that are not things one can develop. The company website states the following:

The IntelliGym™ technology is based on a concept originally developed for Air Force pilots by DARPA (the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.)

The initial research was conducted by Prof. Daniel Gopher of the Technion in Israel, a world expert in cognitive science. Gopher and his colleagues thought they could train pilots’ brains on land, using a cognitive simulator, or “cognitive trainer”, to the point where anticipating challenges in flight became completely instinctive.

The results were mind-boggling. The researchers identified a record improvement in flight performance – more than 30%, in two of the leading air forces in the world – for cadets who had undergone only 10 hours of focused attention training in Gopher’s simulated “game.”

“What we have discovered is that a key factor for an effective transfer from training environment to reality is that the training program ensures ‘Cognitive Fidelity’, this is, it should faithfully represent the mental demands that happen in the real world. Traditional approaches focus instead on physical fidelity, which may seem more intuitive, but less effective and harder to achieve.” (Prof. Daniel Gopher)

ACE soon developed The IntelliGym™, an online tool which uses Cognitive Simulation technology to improve players’ performance in team sports. First up: Basketball. Starting with a study in the Wingate Sports Institute and moving on to train thousands of players in the US, the training program yielded remarkable results: improvement by tens of percents in a variety of basketball standard parameters and statistics (e.g. assists, turnovers, steals, field goal percentage, and rebounds). Moreover – the trained teams recorded remarkably higher win ratios.

Strangely enough, it was found that from a brain perspective, flying a jet is similar to playing hoops. Quick decision-making under pressure, shot selection, anticipation, execution, team work and spatial orientation are all skills in common.

Professor Gopher noted regarding the reapplication of his original technology that most of our daily activities, and specifically most of sports-related activities, involve executive control processes that are responsible for aspects such as planning and sequencing activities, focusing attention, selecting between environmental aspects, switching and dividing attention between different actions, and more.

In order to develop a basketball cognitive training tool, the researchers mapped the brain skills that are required for top performance in the game of basketball. With this map in hand, ACE’s researchers designed a system that simulates the exact same skill set. Although the players are merely performing with a keyboard in front of a computer, if you screen the minds of the trainees, you’ll find that the skills (or the “brain muscles”) that are working are exactly those that are required during a real basketball game.

The training system is therefore designed as a tool that trains multiple cognitive skills in a unified and comprehensive task environment. Trainer components are mapped to the cognitive skills that were identified in the initial task analysis (following years of research on the sports field / court / arena) and are incorporated as integral parts into a computerized game.

Finally, ACE’s training philosophy emphasizes the cognitive fidelity of tasks (similar processing modalities, similar attention control requirements), and not their physical fidelity.

In addition to flight applications, the sports versions now also includes hockey in addition to the above-mentioned basketball application.

See a video here:

In their overview of the software, the New York Times wrote

The United States senior men’s hockey team has not won a championship since 1996, but in recent years, the American junior and youth teams have dominated, winning two of the past four world under-20 tournaments and four of the past five under-18 world titles.

Could a desktop computer game be what makes the young Americans so good?

“Work the brain; the science is there,” said Danton Cole, in his fourth season as the coach of USA Hockey’s U-18 team. “We have skating coaches and strength coaches and, obviously, hockey coaches to give our guys every advantage. But here’s an area where we can further their development: deep learning.”

For the past five seasons, USA Hockey has used IntelliGym, an Israeli-developed cognitive training program, to teach hockey sense and spatial awareness to its players in the national team development program and on its national youth teams.

To some observers, the program resembles the old arcade standby Asteroids, with the user manipulating a triangle through a moving welter of opposing triangles and through escalating levels of difficulty. It looks like a cross between a hockey game and a dogfight in space, taking place on a laptop.

“You have many objects around you, things are happening very fast; you need to respond; you need to have spatial awareness; you need to have very good anticipation; and you need more complex skills, like executive function in your brain and attention control,” said Danny Dankner, the chief executive of Applied Cognitive Engineering, the company that makes IntelliGym.

“You can actually train your brain to do that, even in a very, very complex, challenging environment like a hockey game,” said Dankner, who added that the program was based on one used to train pilots in the Israeli air force, in which he served as an officer. The company also produces a basketball version of IntelliGym.

Thirteen players on last year’s United States U-20 team, which won the world junior tournament in Russia, trained with IntelliGym during their time with USA Hockey. That number included Seth Jones and Jacob Trouba, who jumped directly to the N.H.L. this season.

The Americans will defend their world junior title starting Thursday in Malmo, Sweden. Sixteen of the 26 players on the team’s preliminary roster have trained on the computer game, most of them for at least two years.

The use of IntelliGym has spread beyond USA Hockey. Last season, the Niagara IceDogs of the Ontario Hockey League and Concordia University in Montreal used the system. This season’s adoptees include Seattle, Portland, Regina, Lethbridge and Ottawa in the Canadian major junior leagues, as well as the Union College men’s team and the Maine and Ohio State women’s teams in the N.C.A.A.

“Making better decisions on the ice, what we call spatial awareness, can be trained if you have the right tools,” Dankner said. “During our research, we asked coaches how they trained those skills, and most told us, ‘Either you’re born with it, or you’re not.’ They said it was very, very hard to train them directly.”

Not all players are fans of the system. J. T. Miller of the Rangers, who played for the United States in four youth world tournaments, said he did not bother with it.

“I just didn’t think a computer game was going to help me become a better hockey player,” he said.

At USA Hockey, players begin the program at the simplest level, using it twice a week in 15- to 20-minute sessions — but never on nights before games or on consecutive days. As they progress through the levels, the game becomes harder and faster, requiring new steps such as making a minimum number of passes before shooting or playing while the screen is obscured. Those sessions can last up to 45 minutes. Each player’s scores go to the coaches and to analysts at IntelliGym.

“The information the guys at IntelliGym have is really in-depth,” Cole said. “Without knowing our guys, they can go in and describe how the young man processes and that we need to work on particular things. They’re spot on with it. We can jump on it and get those guys moving again.”

Cole cited one player who had shown no progress in the game for a month or so.

“The IntelliGym guys’ analysis was that the player was drifting off, and that’s certainly a big component to hockey — your focus and concentration,” he said. “And through addressing that with him, boom, he got back on track.”

Cole added: “The guys are surprised when that kind of feedback comes back. Our guys are competitive. They want to be the best on the team, so when they see something like that, they get frustrated and ask questions and want to get better at it. They get more out of it that way.”

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