Great athletes know that it takes more than physical ability to do well - it takes brain power in the form of speed and efficiency in decision-making as well.   Two researchers from the School of Optometry, Professor Jocelyn Faubert and postdoctoral student David Tinjust, of the Université de Montréal say they have discovered how to train the brain of athletes to improve their overall athletic performance.

They put a dozen soccer, tennis and hockey players through multiple object-tracking exercises.   In one of these exercises, subjects in the automatic virtual environment cave were asked to follow the increasingly rapid movements of a series of balls and identify those that quickly changed colour. After each training session, which lasted about an hour, results were recorded and athletes could note their progress. "It's like physical training, but for the brain," says Faubert.

The athletes' capacity to absorb a lot of information simultaneously and manage it efficiently increased on average by 53 percent, they say, and their approach has already gained great popularity among athletes, from star goalie Kim St-Pierre to North American boxing champion Anthonin Décarie.

"In their normal workouts, athletes regularly evaluate their physical performance, but until now there has been no tool that could rate their cognitive performance," says Faubert. "If an athlete feels both physically and mentally ready, that can only have a positive influence on his or her performance."

Originally, the tool was used to see how elderly people or those with vision problems would behave in a virtual environment. For example, how could subjects work their way through a crowd, traffic or get on an escalator? The researchers then decided to adapt the process to top athletes and transfer the scientific knowledge to virtual training tools. 

Athletes could wear a virtual helmet that would allow them to train anywhere. They could also wear cybernetic gloves and glasses and, while viewing superimposed images, they could practise complex movements with a fictitious opponent. Every movement of the hand, foot and head would be recorded with sensors.