Imagine if knocking down pigs in Angry Birds could make you a better midfielder. Or if spending hours playing Minecraft could raise your batting average. (It can’t, and it won’t.) Video games — especially those found in Apple and Google app stores — have primarily been about providing a simple distraction from real life. They’re fun and great for wasting time and getting through long car rides. But their usefulness often ends there.
HeadTrainer hopes to change that.
HeadTrainer is an iOS and Android mobile app designed to make athletes better by improving their cognitive abilities. Simply put, it aims to make you better at sports by training your brain through video games.
The app is endorsed by athletes including Alex Morgan, Richard Sherman, Dale Earnhardt Jr., and Caroline Wozniacki, and developed in conjunction with the Duke Sports Science Institute.
“A quarterback with the best arm won’t be effective unless he can track, anticipate, and decide with precision,” says Duke Sports Science Institutes’ Deborah K. Attix, Ph.D., ABPP/CN in an email. “A soccer player likewise has to judge interference, anticipate moves, plan routes, decide when to pass and kick. These are the abilities that are at the heart of HeadTrainer workouts.”
HeadTrainer has 15 games — a/k/a workouts — featuring virtual athlete cameos and increasingly difficult challenges. The workouts are designed to improve the user’s memory, processing speed, focus and concentration, visual-spatial awareness, and decision-making. The app is free to download and use, but additional features can be purchased for $4.99 a month.
The science behind the app is rooted in studies about how to influence memory and thinking skills in healthy people and in individuals suffering from injuries and illnesses. There are other brain training apps out there, like Luminosity. But HeadTrainer is designed specifically to increase athletic performance through sports games.
“We identified the areas of memory and thinking that are important to athletes, and used experts in developing the interactive exercises to tap those theories,” Attix says.
One of the early adopters and endorsers of HeadTrainer is Toronto Blue Jays right fielder Jose Bautista. He likes to use the app when he has some down time or a few spare minutes before a game. HeadTrainer is convenient for Bautista because it gives him an opportunity for mental practice that isn’t time-consuming or tied to expensive coaches.
“I feel like the best type of coaching is when you can learn the basics and then coach yourself off of that with what works best for you,” Bautista says. “I think with HeadTrainer that’s definitely possible."
Bautista adds that he uses HeadTrainer to work on his concentration and attention to detail.
“Sometimes in one of those big game-time situations, let’s say late in the game when you arrive on deck and then at the plate, and you haven’t been in that situation for a few days or a week, your brain might get distracted by anything that you might be seeing or looking at,” Bautista says. “If you practice with HeadTrainer, ideally, and you get the result you’re looking for, you’re more likely not to get as distracted.”
Currently, the HeadTrainer team is analyzing data and user feedback to build new workouts and features for the second version of the game. They expect to release it later this year.
An app is no substitute for getting out on the field or court and playing. But HeadTrainer is banking on the fact that mental practice is becoming just as important.
“I feel like as an athlete, when I was growing up I did neglect the mental part of sports a lot,” Bautista says. “And I wish I could have made an adjustment to train that and pay more attention earlier in my career, because I think would have seen different results earlier than I did.”
For more information on the app, and to download it, visit the HeadTrainer page in the Apple App Store