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Healthy Living

Tracking Brain Health And Improving Performance -- Lessons From Major League Soccer

Insights from neuroscience and brain health are transforming medicine, psychology, and a range of other fields—including professional sports. Professional sports teams are increasingly identifying brain health as a key variable in athletic performance. At the Global Brain Health and Performance Summit presented by The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center’s Ross Center for Brain Health and Performance, Peter Edwards, M.D. the team doctor for Major League Soccer’s Columbus Crew, explained that “the brain-body continuum or interface is something that affects all performance. And if we can modify that continuum, we’re able to improve performance.”

According to Steve Tashjian, MPT, CSCS, the Crew’s high-performance director, brain health “permeates every aspect of what we do.”

“You can’t possibly work on performance enhancement without having mind-body connection at the very tip of what you’re working on,” he added. “You have to be training the brain constantly. “

For the Crew, understanding the brain-body continuum may provide not only clues to unlocking better individual performance but also overall team performance. The Crew imbeds in-depth tracking of player’s health into practices and games. “We have a lot of very detailed metrics in monitoring our athletes,” says Edwards,” more so than the average professional sports team.”

The Crew test hormone levels in their players’ bodies, including oxytocin, the “bonding hormone” that mothers release while breastfeeding. Edwards says that there’s a possible correlation between oxytocin levels and team cohesion—meaning the Crew might have found a physiological metric for identifying who the real team players are. “We actually can see certain people who have lower oxytocin levels aren’t quite as good teammates,” says Edwards.

The Crew have also created diagnostic tools that allow them to use the data they track to optimize performance. For example, the team measures players’ heart rates during training. Then, using questionnaires given to players after every practice session, trainers can “correlate heart rate with perceived exertion so that if the player thinks they’ve had a hard practice and their heart rate doesn’t reflect that, we look back and ask what other factors could be influencing them,” Edwards says. GPS-based wearables let trainers and coaches track how far players run during games, and allows them to see if a player is in his optimal position over the course of a match.

There’s also a preventative aspect to the Crew’s metrics-heavy approach. “We’re on the cutting edge of modifying training and avoiding injuries before they happen based on a player profile that we can get from our monitoring,” Edwards said. “If their heart rate variability is off or if their omega waves are off, we can modify the intensity of the training for that player so that hopefully we can prevent an injury before it happens.”

The metrics that the Crew track in their players all link back into brain function in some way, and working as the Crew’s doctor has given Edwards a sense of how emotion impacts physical health and performance. Edwards has been the Crew’s physician since the team’s founding in 1996—he’s seen losing seasons, along with several US Open and MLS Cup championship runs. He’s observed connections between team morale and his players’ sense of their own physical well-being. “The training room is empty after a win and full after a loss, with the same degree of knocks and bruises,” he noted. “Your psychological makeup after a loss with an injury is different than your psychological makeup after a win with the same injury.”

The role of Edwards’ staff extends beyond deciphering the complex links between a player’s brain health, physical health, and performance to actually empowering athletes themselves to better understand and ultimately regulate the mind-body continuum. As Tashjian explains, “Much like life, sports presents massive amounts of distractions that produce emotional responses, that start to trigger the fight-or-flight instinct or other autonomic responses we get from the body. We want our athletes to have a robust awareness of what’s happening within them, from an emotional standpoint and from a cognitive standpoint.”

This piece is part of a special brain health initiative curated by Dr. Ali Rezai, Director of Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center’s Stanley D. and Joan H. Ross Center for Brain Health and Performance. For more, visit HuffPost’s Brain Health page.