Thinking through the future of sport

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02 Jun 2020 |

Backed by Horizon 2020, IntelliGym brings game-changing cognitive training to European football

When the COVID-19 pandemic brought mass spectator sports and team training to a grinding halt this spring, football clubs faced a dicey challenge: How could they keep their players in top shape while still adhering to social distancing? For thousands of players around the world, at-home training programmes provided the answer.

One way to help players achieve peak performance is to train their brains to quickly respond to the events unfolding around them. To that end, Applied Cognitive Engineering (ACE) has developed a software-based brain training platform called IntelliGym.

Developed long before COVID-19 emerged, the platform has benefited from a surge in demand for at-home training, with ACE recently inking deals to bring the technology to the St. Louis Soccer Club and the Texas Association of Soccer Coaches. CEO Danny Dankner says that coaches and players have been won over by IntelliGym’s empirically-backed approach to improving performance.

“Performance really depends on the extent to which players can read and react to what’s going on around them,” explains Dankner, who co-founded ACE in Israel in 2003. The company has since expanded worldwide, with offices in Europe and the U.S.

In other words, athletes’ performance hinges not only on their physical coordination, but also on their cognitive function and ability to read the playing field. Among the champions of this concept: the European Union, which has invested in IntelliGym through its Horizon 2020 programme with an eye toward bringing the platform to European football teams and enhancing the continent’s most popular sport.

Training bodies, training minds

Designed to help players develop cognitive dexterity, IntelliGym is based on technology used to train pilots and first responders – who, Dankner points out, also deal with “high-pressure scenarios where you have lots of decisions to make.”

Not unlike a video game, IntelliGym drills footballers on a wide range of challenges – testing their abilities to predict plays, perceive what’s happening on the field, switch cognitively from offensive to defensive mode, and more. But no two players have quite the same experience: Dankner says that artificial intelligence algorithms tailor the training programme according to each athlete’s perceptive abilities and skills. 

Backed by €1.9 million in Horizon 2020 funding, ACE – which had already developed a cognitive training platform used by USA Hockey – embarked in 2015 on a two-year project to develop IntelliGym for football. As a result, the system is now used by a wide range of organisations from youth soccer teams to professional clubs, including PSV Eindhoven and AZ Alkmaar in the Netherlands, Hamburg SV, and many more.

Searching for success

ACE’s view on what it takes to succeed in sports is backed by empirical evidence. In a 2013 study of English Premier League players, researchers found a direct correlation between a player’s performance and the number of times the player turned their head away from the ball to survey the field – dubbed “searches.”

What’s more, the researchers discovered that players who had earned top awards, such as FIFA World Player of the Year, search at a higher rate than players who hadn’t won those accolades.

But ACE also needed to demonstrate that IntelliGym could actually boost players’ cognitive performance.

Studies conducted by university researchers in Germany and the Netherlands provided that much-needed validation. The Netherlands study found that football players trained on IntelliGym improved their skills by 30 percent over a control group.

Meanwhile, a study led by Dr. Karsten Schul and Dr. Daniel Memmert from the Institute of Training and Computer Science in Sport at the German Sport University, found that players in elite football clubs who trained on IntelliGym significantly improved their performance compared to a control group.

A team effort

“With Horizon 2020, we are bringing this brain training revolution to the world of sport,” Dankner says.

And European football was a natural use case: “Europe is leading the world,” Dankner says. “They have the best football academies and the best leagues.”

Participation in Horizon 2020 helped merge IntelliGym’s innovative training concept and the world of European football, providing the funding support necessary to develop a truly cutting-edge training platform.

“In order to develop the IntelliGym program, we needed a truly multidisciplinary effort,” Dankner explains. “We needed cognitive experts, soccer experts, video game experts, and so many more. To put all of that on the table and come up with the best possible product requires funding.”

“Having the seal of approval from the EU obviously helped us when we approached clubs, researchers, and others,” Dankner added. “The same goes for the national football governing bodies.”

The company ultimately hopes to develop cognitive training products for other applications aside from sport, including elder care.

By helping ACE train high-profile footballers both in times of social distancing and throughout their playing careers, Horizon 2020 is highlighting the benefits of left-field innovation across industries and verticals. At the same time, cross-border collaboration between the EU and Israel’s high-tech ecosystem promises to deliver an international win-win.    

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