From Fighter Pilots To Hockey Players, Cognitive Training Gets Results

USA Hockey

“He has great field vision.” “Her court awareness is the difference.” “He seems to have eyes in the back of his head.” Beyond physical talent and technical abilities, some players seem to have this sixth sense of awareness on a court, rink or field that allows them to keep track of their teammates and their opponents so that they can make the perfect pass or step in at the last second to make a defensive stop.  

Coaches often praise and search for this elusive intangible that appears to be a genetic gift but, according to research, is actually a trainable skill.  

Take a look at this video from an amateur hockey player’s point of view, as recorded by a GoPro helmet cam.  The scene constantly changes as do the options this player has for skating, passing, shooting and defending.  Even if he is physically imposing and technically awesome, his success on the ice comes from the hundreds of split second sequences of perception-analysis-decision-action throughout the game.  Processing these situations quickly can make up for being a step slower or few pounds lighter.


Seen as an innate ability, most coaches assume they need to find the players that possess it rather than train all of their players to learn it.

“Making better decisions on the ice, what we call spatial awareness, can be trained if you have the right tools,” said Danny Danker, CEO of Applied Cognitive Engineering (ACE), in a recent NY Times article. “During our research, we asked coaches how they trained those skills, and most told us, ‘Either you’re born with it, or you’re not.’ They said it was very, very hard to train them directly.”

Most simulation training systems try to capture the real world in stunning detail hoping to drop the student into an environment that mirrors what they may face, a concept known as “physical fidelity”, with the assumption that the brain will be better prepared to react to live competition.  But, Professor Daniel Gopher, an industrial engineer and cognitive psychologist, has shown instead that “cognitive fidelity” allows better transfer of training to actual practice.

“What we have dis­cov­ered is that a key fac­tor for an effec­tive trans­fer from train­ing envi­ron­ment to real­ity is that the train­ing pro­gram ensures cog­ni­tive fidelity, this is, it should faith­fully rep­re­sent the men­tal demands that hap­pen in the real world,” Gopher revealed in a SharpBrains interview. “Tra­di­tional approaches focus instead on phys­i­cal fidelity, which may seem more intu­itive, but less effec­tive and harder to achieve.”

Gopher is a scientific advisor with ACE, which has developed IntelliGym, a cognitive training simulator that plays like a videogame but has years of cognitive science research underneath the hood.  Today, there are versions for basketball and hockey, with other sports under development.  

IntelliGym’s roots are from an environment that also has its share of changing variables, air combat.  We’re talking the real thing; training fighter pilot cadets in the Israeli Air Force and Apache helicopter pilots in the U.S. Army.  For the fighter cadets, using the training system increased their flight performance by 30% over a control group, while the helicopter students who used ACE’s cognitive fidelity system had a 100% graduation rate versus just 18% for those trained with a traditional physical fidelity system.

“The need for phys­i­cal fidelity is not based on research, at least for the type of high-performance train­ing we are talk­ing about,” said Gopher. “In fact, a sim­ple envi­ron­ment may be bet­ter in that it does not cre­ate the illu­sion of real­ity.”

Back in 2009, USA Hockey gave IntelliGym a trial run with its U17 and U18 national teams. After eight weeks of using the system, the number of goals and assists scored went up by 42% while each team’s win ratios doubled within the same season.  Impressed by these early results, the organization has used the system with its national teams over the last five years, producing medals in 23 of the last 24 international tournaments, including 16 gold medals, and four consecutive IIHF U18 World championships.

"Work the brain, the science is there," said Danton Cole, coach of USA Hockey’s U-18 team. “We have skating coaches and strength coaches and, obviously, hockey coaches to give our guys every advantage. But here’s an area where we can further their development: deep learning.”