The Competitive Edge: Why Measuring and Training Cognitive Processing Speed is a Must-Have for High-Performance Athletes

The Competitive Edge

Why Measuring and Training Cognitive Processing Speed Is a Must-Have for High-Performance Athletes
By Balraj Dhillon, BSc. Kin, Marketing & Business Development Manager, HealthTech Connex Inc.
June 26, 2023

In today's competitive sports environment, athletes are always looking for an edge over their opponents. Many high-performance athletes spend countless hours training their physical abilities, but often overlook the importance of training their cognitive abilities. While physical training is essential and relatively easy to measure objectively, many athletes overlook the importance of training their cognitive abilities, perhaps because of the inability to quantify progress. In this blog post, we will discuss why training cognitive processing speed is a must-have for high-performance athletes, and how objectively measuring it opens new avenues to gain a competitive edge.

Better Reaction Times and Performance

Historically, reaction time has been viewed as critical for athletes to succeed in their sport. Classical understanding of reaction time involves the speed-accuracy trade-off. In other words, very fast reaction times can also be full of errors in performance. Athletes ideally want optimal speed and accuracy, which translates into improved information processing rather than reaction times per se. By training cognitive processing speeds, athletes can improve their mental adaptability and increase their chances of success.

Research has shown that computer-based cognitive training programs are highly effective at improving processing speeds. For example, the cognitive training programs developed by NeuroTracker using perceptual-cognitive training have been shown in peer-reviewed studies to significantly improve cognitive processing speed in individuals doing the NeuroTracker intervention versus the control group. With regular training, athletes can develop faster reaction times and make better performance decisions during gameplay.

Enhanced Attentional Processing for Better Focus

Attentional processing is crucial for athletes to stay focused and avoid making mistakes. Selective attention is the ability to selectively focus on important information while filtering out distractions.

One effective way to improve selective attention is through mindfulness meditation. Mindfulness meditation involves training the mind to focus on the present moment, without judgment or distraction. Research has shown that mindfulness meditation can improve signal-detection tasks and enhance selective attention.[1] Incorporating mindfulness meditation into a training regimen can help athletes stay focused and perform at their best during competition. Some of the top athletes today who utilize meditation as part of their regiment include LeBron James, Barry Zito, Steph Curry, and Pete Carroll who has the entire Seattle Seahawks roster participate in meditation. During some TV timeouts, you can see LeBron James step away from his team and meditate before returning to play.

The NeuroCatch® radar plot in Figure 1 below is a visual depiction of peer-reviewed cognitive evoked potential data from the effects of meditation training.[2] The research showed that meditation training resulted in the N100 (auditory sensation) and P300 (attentional processing) amplitudes increasing significantly, objectively demonstrating the neurophysiological benefits of meditation.

Figure 1: A radar plot depicting that P300 (attentional processing) amplitudes are greater in the meditation trained group versus control group

Increased Cognitive Flexibility

Cognitive flexibility is the ability to switch between tasks or mental sets quickly and efficiently. In sports, cognitive flexibility is essential for athletes to adapt to changing game situations and adjust their strategy accordingly. By training cognitive processing speed, athletes can increase their cognitive flexibility and improve their overall adaptability during competition.[3] Further, a review by Berry and Holmes (2011) demonstrated that training attentional processing can lead to improvements in performance, as athletes with greater abilities to maintain focus on relevant cues and ignore irrelevant cues could execute skilled movements with far greater ability.[4]

One effective way to improve cognitive flexibility is through dual n-back training. Dual n-back training involves challenging athletes to remember and recall increasingly complex sequences of stimuli. Research has shown that dual n-back training can improve cognitive flexibility and working memory, which can be beneficial for athletes in a variety of sports. Other interventions for improving cognitive processing includes transcranial photobiomodulation therapy. In Figure 2 below, the NeuroCatch® Platform was able to objectively measure that after 30 days of daily 15-minute doses of transcranial photobiomodulation, N400 (cognitive processing) latency improved by 16%. By incorporating dual n-back training into their training regimen, athletes can develop the cognitive skills needed to adapt quickly to changing situations and improve their performance.

Figure 2: A radar plot demonstrating improvements in cognitive processing speeds following four weeks of transcranial-photobiomodulation treatment

In conclusion, optimizing mental performance through attentional and cognitive processing should be a core pillar in the training regiments of high-performance athletes. By improving reaction time, enhancing attentional processing and increasing cognitive flexibility, athletes can strive to gain a competitive advantage over their peers by being the better mental performer. From New York Mets great Pete Alonso to the late great Kobe Bryant whose MAMBA mentality incorporated cognitive processing training, to seven-time Super Bowl Champion Tom Brady who credits training his processing speed for his longevity, the best of the best are leveraging the ability to think and react quicker than their opponents.

An early-mover advantage is also available to athletes who incorporate cognitive training into their core program, as the neurocognitive performance market is relatively untapped by athletes in the present day. If you’re a performance specialist within an organization, a coach who works with a team or individual athletes, or if you’re an athlete seeking out information for where to gain an advantage, it's essential to consider cognitive training, in addition to physical training, when building programs to optimize performance and provide athletes every opportunity to succeed. By doing so, you can help your athletes reach their full potential and excel in their sport.


  1. Semple, R.J., (2010). Does Mindfulness Meditation Enhance Attention? A Randomized Controlled Trial. Mindfulness1, 121–130.
  2. Sarang, S. P., & Telles, S. (2006). Changes in p300 following two yoga-based relaxation techniques. The International journal of neuroscience116(12), 1419–1430.
  3. Sambrook, T. D., & Georgiou, K. R., (2019). The relationship between cognitive training and sports performance: A systematic review. International Review of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 12(1), 240-265).
  4. Berry, N. T., & Holmes, P. S., (2011). The effects of attentional focus on motor performance: a review. Journal of Motor Behavior, 43(3), 155-170).