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Training ‘Mind Muscles’ for Sports Stardom

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Because this is how top athletes will be improving their game.

  • Neuroscientist Konstantin Sonkin has developed an artificial intelligence platform so athletes can train their “mind muscles” in a way that helps them overcome physical limitations.
  • The method of training by using your brain to control an on-screen avatar has demonstrated improvement in Russian soccer players, and it could be coming to basketball next.

A magician with the soccer ball, Lionel Messi leaves defenders flat-footed as he dribbles around them before scoring surreal goals. And he has done all of that predominantly with his left foot. Now imagine if he had the same skills and control with his weaker right foot too.

That’s the biology-defying future for sports that Israel-based neuroscientist Konstantin Sonkin, 35, is conjuring. He has developed an artificial intelligence platform that helps athletes train their “mind muscles” in a way that helps them overcome physical limitations. 

In fact, says Sonkin, who was born in St. Petersburg, Russia, the left-right question is how “our first proof of concept started.” 

His aim is to “track changes in the brain activities” and to teach the brain to exercise in real time. 

He remembers the time coaches of FC Zenit, the champions of the Russian Premier League, reached out to him with a specific problem: One of their young players had one strong foot and one weak one. And because one foot was weak, they’d focus only on the strong one. “So it’s a chicken-and-egg problem,” he says.

So he came up with a solution to boost the performances of these athletes. How? It’s like playing the video game FIFA, just with your mind instead of your controller. 

Konstantin

Sonkin asks the player to put on a brain sensory cap, stare at a screen and try to control their character using their imagination. If, for instance, you’re a soccer striker, this platform would help you work on penalty kicks. You pick the position and then you’re prompted by the screen to imagine the specific action in detail. That’s because, says Sonkin, it is important to visualize a sports-specific action. He says his aim is to “track changes in the brain activities” and to teach the brain to exercise in real time. 

While he accepts that we are far from fully understanding how the brain works, he believes scientists can now examine the basic functions of the brain and its structures to benefit the physical activity of athletes. And that’s what he’s been trying to do.

This product, which he calls a brain gym, is deeply personal for the salt-and-pepper-haired neuroscientist and entrepreneur. In fact, he wants it to be his gift to society, and especially Israel, for welcoming him, his wife and their two children with open arms. That’s because the wide-eyed man with a gentle grin that refuses to leave his face had decided to “make an aliyah” — the Hebrew word for “elevation” or “going up” — by moving his family to Israel four years ago on the basis of their Jewish origin.

And perhaps his dedication to giving back to the community is what keeps people around him. 

Ashley Rose, a marketing manager at Sonkin’s startup, i-BrainTech, concurs. The 26-year-old from Canada came to Israel two years ago to pursue her MBA at Tel Aviv University. Initially, she wanted to return to Canada, but then she met Sonkin. “It’s extremely inspiring to work with him,” Rose says. “It’s interesting because I think, traditionally, people think of scientists having a certain personality and being a certain way in their thought process and thinking. But because he’s a scientist and an entrepreneur, there are like two different sides of him. He thinks really rationally and, you know, he applies statistics to everything, and he’s so methodical. But on the other hand, he’s a risk-taker, and he sees the bigger vision.”

Technology

And this vision has been quite helpful for the FC Zenit Academy, where Sonkin piloted his product. The team was divided into two groups: One had regular training, and the other had regular training along with neuroscience training twice a week. After two months, the second set of players displayed a 35 percent increase in kicking accuracy and a 33 percent increase in ball speed.

That shouldn’t be surprising, says Sonkin, even as the athletes’ bone structure and muscle density remain the same. “What we need to train is the brain.”

Now he plans to take his product to athletes in Germany, Israel and the United States, and turn his focus beyond soccer and toward basketball. Imagine if Steph Curry could shoot with his left hand as well as his right.

And there are implications well beyond sports. Sonkin has also designed brain tech for children with cerebral palsy so that they can interact with a 3D-printed mobile robot controlled by their brain and body signals.

Sonkin’s work does raise some thorny moral questions. For instance, in her article “An Ethics Toolbox for Neurotechnology” in the neuroscience journal Neuron, Martha J. Farah writes, “When we improve our psychological function by brain intervention, it is much like improving our car’s performance by making adjustments under the hood. … But in so doing, we are treating a person — our self in the case of voluntary brain enhancement — as an object.” Privacy and security questions abound.

Sonkin concurs. “Such development cannot be left in the hands of anyone who can use it as a weapon.”

But neurotech, what Sonkin calls poetry in mathematical form, is the next big thing. And we should all be prepared — albeit ethically.

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