Six months ago, U.S. water polo team center John Mann sat down in a recliner in Santa Barbara, California, and started playing video games. His objective was simple: win a simulated car race. But there was nothing in Mann’s hands—no keypad, joystick, or anything else to control his virtual car. Instead he wore electrodes on his head, which were wired to a brain-wave monitor attached to a game console. “I drove the car with my mind,” says Mann, 27.
It works like this: Though the car turns on a predetermined path, the emotions of the person playing the game, which are recorded on the brain-wave monitor, control the vehicle’s speed. If the car gets in trouble and the player feels stressed, his brain waves speed up—and the car slows down. After a while, the player learns to stay calm under pressure.
The game is being used by Santa Barbara’s P3 Peak Performance to change the way an athlete’s brain works. “When we’re anxious, the neurotransmitters in our brains send off electric impulses that prevent us from doing anything to our full potential,” says founder Marcus Elliot. “Athletes who play the game learn to control the electrophysiology of their brains.”
Elliot, who developed the gaming unit with West Lake Village, California-based Neurotopia in 2009, has worked with the U.S. water polo and volleyball teams. And, at least for Mann, it has helped: pregame jitters used to drain his energy and render him nearly useless by the end of a match. Now he says the video-game training has calmed him like never before. “It helps you let go of the things you can’t control. And that makes me play better.”
Men's water polo, August 12, 9:50 a.m. EDT