Mayo Clinic's new Rochester training center for elite athletes has taken a cue from the Israeli military.
The facility, in the Dan Abraham Healthy Living Center, this year began cognitive trainingdesigned to increase hockey players' "hockey sense" — their awareness of where the puck and other players are on the ice. It uses "applied cognitive engineering" developed with USA Hockey.
"This will be the first time that a world renowned sports center, such as Mayo, implements a brain-training program into their hockey training regimen," said Tony Argyropoulos, a spokesman for a training program called "Hockey IntelliGym" that USA Hockey has also used.
Danny Dankner, the company's CEO and co-founder, said the system was first developed to boost performance of fighter pilots.
As a former Air Force officer, "I was pretty impressed with the result."
He then decided to apply the technology to sports.
Mayo Clinic's Sports Medicine Center is just beginning to use cognitive training this year, so its athletes don't yet have extensive experience with the system.
But Aaron Leafgren, a Simley High School Spartan, in Inver Grove Heights, is a big fan.
He was recently named among the top 54 hockey players who are high-school juniors in Minnesota.
During the 2012-2013 season he played 25 games and is credited with nine goals and nine assists.
That was before he began cognitive training through his team's program.
Afterward, he played two fewer games in the 2013-2014 season but achieved 20 goals and 21 assists.
Some improvement would be expected from an athlete who's gained experience. But not that much, said Leafgren's coach, Austyn Kryzer.
As a team, he said, "we saw a huge improvement in goals per game" from a little more than 2 on average to 3.5.
The computerized cognitive traininggets more difficult as athletes progress. Similar to physical drills, the cognitive training only works if the athlete makes the effort to do the work.
"It's like these computer robots that turn on and off every couple seconds," said Leafgren, who saw a 35 percent hockey-sense performance increase, according to Intelligym.
Dr. Michael Stuart, co-director of the Mayo Clinic Sports Medicine Center, said athletes can actually improve their ability to anticipate what's going to happen on the ice based on the location of the puck or other players, including "both teammates and opponents."
The training seeks to take what some players come by naturally and teach it to others.
"They used to say Wayne Gretsky could anticipate the play before it was going to happen," Stuart said. "And he did that before this type of sophisticated cognitive training."
A decrease in injuries has corresponded with the advent of cognitive training nationally, but there's no research to document whether that has been because of cognitive training. Stuart is interested in studying whether cognitive training can actually help decrease concussions, fractures and other injuries.
Players are improving their ability to score goals and assist," Stuart said. "But also maybe they're improving their ability to prevent injury."
Many concussions happen because of unanticipated hits, Stuart said. Theories suggest players who are aware of a pending hit can get out of the way or tense the body in a way that prevents greater harm.
"A guy's trying to hit you and then you can see him out of the corner of your eye … you just feel more comfortable with the puck and see your spaces that are open," Leafgren said.
Does such training affect life off the rink?
Leafgren said he's noticed, with golf, that, "when I just hit the ball, it's easier to pick out the ball in the air. It's almost like it improves your eyes."
Also, he said, "when I'm driving, you're a little more cautious and know what's going on."