UVic Student Researcher Gives Varsity Swimmers an Edge Using NeuroTracker

Swimming is a fast sport. Take the men’s 100-m butterfly finals at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing for example: the difference between Michael Phelps’ gold and Milorad Čavić’s silver was 0.01 seconds.

Taylor Snowden-Richardson is well aware of how quickly a swim race can be won or lost. The UVic undergrad, who will graduate in April with a B.Sc. with dual majors in biology and psychology, is on the varsity swim team.

“It’s a split-second thing,” she says.

However, Taylor thinks she may have found a way to give competitive swimmers the edge they need to win a race using the university’s NeuroTracker.

 

The NeuroTracker is a computer program that uses 3D objects to test a participant’s visual and cognitive-perceptual abilities. In each session, a participant is shown eight 3D yellow balls. Four of the balls briefly turn orange, then (once back to yellow) all eight move about for a few seconds. When they stop moving, the participant must correctly identify which of the balls had previously changed colour. The exercise is repeated, with the balls slowing down if the participant makes errors and speeding up if the participant chooses correctly. The average speed of the balls is the session score.

Not surprisingly, the NeuroTracker is often used to conduct research on visual-based sports like soccer and football. However, Taylor wanted to see if the program could also be beneficial for the non-visual sport of swimming. She says a participant uses every part of their brain to track the balls—planning and attention, 3D awareness, etc.—not just vision. Doing a task that uses all parts of the brain trains the connections between them and primes the brain to use those connections more.

“What fires together wires together,” she explains.

To test her theory, Taylor brought in her peers on the varsity swim team. (“It gave us a fun group to work with,” she says “They’re all very supportive, and it’s beneficial for them.”) She particularly wanted to see if the NeuroTracker could enhance the swimmers’ auditory selective attention. In other words, she wanted to know if the athletes could train their ability to focus on the start gun instead of the crowd, and react to the start gun faster.

Taylor started off by measuring the athletes’ off-the-block start times (i.e., the time between the start gun firing and the swimmers leaving the block). The 15 study participants then trained in the Neurotracker twice a week, spending a total of 20 minutes with the program in each session.

After five weeks, Taylor measured new off-the-block start times. On average, participants improved by 0.08 seconds—which could easily be the different between winning and losing a sprint event. The nine control swimmers also improved by an average of 0.03 seconds, which Taylor says is due to practice effects. The swim team trains nine times per week, so “everyone is going to improve a bit,” she says.

While the NeuroTracker training has had positive results in the practice pool, Taylor says she would also like to study her peers’ start times at competitions to see if the improvement is sustained.

Until then, Taylor has had plenty of work to keep her occupied. She just finished creating a short video describing the project for Research Reels, a UVic media competition. Taylor also plans to present her research for the Jamie Cassels Undergraduate Research Award and would then like to submit the work for publication.

Taylor also just applied for a NSERC research grant. “This project made me realize how cool research is,” she says. If she receives the grant, Taylor says she would like to conduct more research using the NeuroTracker, only this time on concussion management.