Rugby referees are under immense pressure to perform at an optimal level in every game. It is of paramount importance that a top rugby referee must not only know the laws of the game extremely well and make quick, precise decisions but also be in top physical condition. This physical condition does not only consist of physical fitness, but brain fitness and visual skill-related fitness as well. Milliseconds of advanced visual processing skills and subsequent quick decision making in critical moments of the game can be the difference between winning or losing.
Being physically fit does not necessarily mean someone is brain fit or has advanced visual processing skills. In fact, poor visual processing skills strongly correlate with a lack of brain fitness – the ease and speed with which people think, learn and process information. All the senses and the brain is seen as one functional, whole brain system, as information comes in through the senses to the brain.The eyes are the only part of the brain that is visible, therefore, advanced visual processing skills can be seen as the point of departure for optimizing brain fitness and increasing cognitive performance.
An MSc study was conducted at the University of Pretoria to investigate the impact of health-related, skills-related and brain-related interventions on overall wellbeing and performance of 27 South African Union Rugby referees during a 12-week period. The objective of the study was to enhance the overall physical and mental performance of rugby referees, whereby the following three core areas were measured during pre- and post-assessment sessions: health-related fitness index, skill-related fitness index and brain fitness index. The assessments consisted of a complete battery of tests that provided a holistic view of the overall physical and mental performance of the rugby referees. Neuro-Link’s Neuro-Agility Profile™ Advanced+ (NAP™ Advanced+) assessment was used to measure brain performance and potential risk for error.
Intervention sessions were conducted on-site under the supervision of a trained Limitless You consultant. The Limitless You Peak Performance Programme (LYPPP) is a high-performance training and assessment program, designed specifically to reduce overall stress and improve cognitive performance of top athletes. This program also serves to strengthen brain-body balance. Between the pre- and post-assessment sessions, fifteen intervention sessions were conducted, twice a week, after which students had to consistently practice learnt skills. Each intervention session consisted of a balance of physical exercises, neuro-agility exercises to optimize the ease, speed and flexibility with which referees think and make decisions, as well as advanced visual processing skill-related exercises. During training, a vision laboratory executed a battery of repeated visual processing skills that consisted of visual acuity, focusing, tracking, vergence, eye-hand coordination, and visualization.
The LYPPP significantly improved the brain fitness (p-value = <0.0001), movement (p-value = 0.0003), attitude (p-value = 0.0055), and brain food (p-value = 0.0104) drivers, while it non-significantly improved the sleep (p-value = 0.3265) and stress (p-value = 0.3022) drivers. The overall brain performance score of the rugby referees improved significantly (p-value = <0.0001) from 60.31% to 70.06%.
Elements of cognitive skills are anticipation, attention, focus and concentration, decision making, memory, problem solving and pattern recognition. This research study shows that neuro-agility and advanced visual processing skills has a significant impact on improving cognitive performance. In a VUCA world – volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity – cognitive flexibility, accurate decision making, complex problem solving and whole-brain (critical and creative) thinking skills are some of the top ten most desired skills to prosper in the future. Optimizing the brain-based elements that increase the ease, speed and flexibility with which people learn, think and process information is mandatory for cognitive performance improvement!
As much as fitness and agility are pre-requisites for peak physical performance, brain fitness and mental flexibility are pre-requisites for peak cognitive performance. Whether you find yourself on the sports field, in the workplace, or the classroom, optimizing your neuro-agility and neuro-design flexibility, will be a lucrative investment into future employability, reducing potential risk for error and increased cognitive skills required to prosper today and in the future.
What would it mean to you if you could improve the ease, speed and flexibility with which you think, learn and process information by 10%?
This MSc project was conducted by Mr. Morné Ferreira, SA Rugby Referee under the supervision of Prof. P du Toit from the University of Pretoria. For an overview of the study, click here!