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Training the officiating brain

By USA Hockey, 10/26/17, 4:30PM MDT


IntelliGym training aims to improve officiating intelligence and decision-making

If The Hockey IntelliGym sounds like the combination of the words "intelligence and gym" it's because it is. There's no need to overthink how the cognitive engineering company's name is constructed, though that might be the only simple thing about its operation.

“It’s basically a gym for cognitive skill, or a gym for gaining intelligence,” CEO Danny Dankner said. “So yes, that’s what it is.”

Originally used to help athletes train their brains to help make quicker and better decisions on the field, court or ice, The Hockey IntelliGym, created by ACE (Applied Cognitive Engineering) has since also been used with fighter pilots, whom Dankner said have very similar brains to athletes.

“It turns out there are many similarities between fighter pilots and competitive athletes for a cognitive standpoint,” Dankner said. “If you look at what is the input, and what players and pilots need to track, and how to anticipate, they manage movement, and trajectories, and how to identify patterns and make the right decisions. When you compare that from a cognitive standpoint, this is very similar.”

USA Hockey talked to Dankner about the work his company is doing in hockey, its most recent study, and what might come next for The Hockey IntelliGym.

USA Hockey: Can you give us a brief background on the company? What is it exactly that The Hockey IntelliGym does?

Danny Dankner
: The company has been working for over 10 years on developing or addressing the huge need to improve the performance and decision-making in the brains of athletes. We do that primarily in team sports. Basically we provide tools to make players think faster and make better decisions and fewer mistakes. That’s basically what we do. The technology that we use was actually recently developed for fighter pilots. We have taken the same technology, and the same research and development team, and we have been doing that in sport for more than 10 years now.

USA Hockey: What are some of the core concepts, and what is some of the science you apply to your work with athletes?

From the scientific standpoint, we use an approach that is called ‘cognitive stimulation.’ We provide a training program that is addressing and stimulating the same brain skills that are needed for specific tasks. Generally speaking, unlike many other cognitive training programs – and there are quite a few out there – this is a very, very task-specific training environment. For example, we developed a training program for ice hockey players, so it specifically works based on that need, and on research that was done on ice hockey players. And if we do a training program for soccer players, or for basketball players, this would be separately researched and developed to address their particular needs. It turns out that every complex activity like that has different and distinctive processes and cognitive capabilities that you need to have.

USA Hockey: How did the relationship with USA Hockey begin?

When we developed this new technology we found out in the case of ice hockey, this is a very, very fast-paced sport, and the need there is very apparent. The decision speed and the things that are happening around you as a player are happening very fast. It turns out, in many cases, players have a hard time to actually comprehend and acquire all the things that are going on around them.

We decided with USA Hockey to do this project, and they were engaged in this process bringing to the table the hockey expertise. We brought the research and development, and the cognitive training access. This was basically a common project that was put together. One of the first users of this new technology back then – and they still use it – was the United States National Development Team players.

USA Hockey: And now The Hockey IntelliGym is doing work with ice hockey officials. Is that the first time you’ve worked with referees?

The first year after the program was out there, it was primarily meant for better performance for players on the ice. But we had been talking to many teams and coaches, and we have seen additional needs that we were not originally aware of. One which was pretty obvious: safety and injuries. It turns out IntelliGym users are less likely to be injured. It’s probably due to the fact that they have better spatial awareness and better anticipation skills. If you know who is behind you and who is around you, you’re less likely to be injured by an unanticipated hit, which is the most common cause for injury.

Then the next step was the Officiating Department approaching us, and they asked if it could be used for officials. We said, ‘We really don’t know.’ Some parts of the cognitive aspects are very similar when you compare players to officials. We did the analysis then, and we thought that could be an interesting case study. They decided to do the study with 40 participants, which we did.

USA Hockey: So what are the next steps for The Hockey IntelliGym, even beyond hockey?

About a month ago, we completed a two-year project to develop a soccer IntelliGym. We have a lot of requests from other sports participants to develop IntelliGyms for additional sports because it turns out this need to improve what is sometimes called the game IQ, or hockey sense, the decision-making, that happens in every sport, and particularly in team sports. We definitely are moving into additional fields. When we got into officiating, a short while after we started the project with the officiating project, we got the same question from the DSB, which is the German Soccer Federation, which is a huge organization. They’re the best in the world at what they do. They asked the same question: ‘Would the IntelliGym help referees as well?’