Science & Research

Cognitive Simulation Highlights

  • Original research initiated by DARPA to train fighter pilots
  • First results in the air-force showed 30% improvement in-the-air
  • NASA repeated the test with US Army pilots showing similar results
  • Cognitive Simulation was granted a US patent and was migrated to sports
  • The Basketball IntelliGym proved 20%-40% on-the-court improvement with NCAA teams
  • The Hockey IntelliGym proved more than 40% on-the-ice improvement with 5 National Teams
  • The Hockey IntelliGym was granted the first ever Brain Fitness Award

The science behind the IntelliGym™

We bring good news for advancing athletes and their coaches: essential game-winning intuition can be acquired. Cognitive scientists have determined the brain is where a game is really played, and brains can be trained, just like muscles can. Daily repetition of a motion - like power skating or shooting hoops - make it natural, fluid. The same is true for mental endurance, flexibility, and for thinking on the fly, ahead of the puck or ball, and ahead of the guy seeking to clip you from behind or block your shot. Mental excellence is quantifiable, and it is changeable. 

Some background: Technology on the fly 

Fighter pilots showing 30% improvement

The IntelliGym™ technology is based on a concept originally developed for Air Force pilots by DARPA (the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency). 

The initial research was conducted by Prof. Daniel Gopher of the Technion in Haifa. Gopher is a Fellow of the U.S. Human Factors and Ergonomics Society and the International Ergonomics Association, Professor of Cognitive Psychology and Human Factors Engineering at the Technion, Israel’s Institute of Science. During his 40 year career, he has held a variety of scientific and academic positions, such as Associate Editor of the European Journal of Cognitive Psychology.

Gopher and his colleagues thought they could train pilots' brains on land, using a cognitive simulator, or “cognitive trainer,” to the point where anticipating challenges in flight became completely instinctive.

The results were mind-boggling. The researchers identified a record improvement in flight performance - more than 30%, in two of the leading Air Forces in the world – for cadets who had undergone only 10 hours of focused attention training in Gopher’s simulated “game.” (Gopher, D., Weil, M, and Bareket, T. (1994): Transfer of skill from a computer game trainer to flight, Human Factors, 36, 387-405) 

Following this groundbreaking outcome, the training system was integrated into the regular training program of the flight school. In another study, sponsored by NASA, cognitive scientists compared the results of the cognitive trainer Gopher’s team had developed (a very basic looking game called Space Fortress) vs. a sophisticated, pictorial and high-level-graphic and physical-fidelity-based computer simulation of a Blackhawk helicopter. The result: the Space Fortress cognitive trainer was very successful in improving performance, while the alternative was not. (See: (1) Hart, Battiste. NASA-Ames Research Center: Field test of video game trainer (1992); (2) Gopher, Weil, Bareket. Fidelity revisited: The transfer of skill from a computer game trainer to actual flight (1991)).

Prof. Daniel Gopher
“What we have discovered is that a key factor for an effective transfer from training environment to reality is that the training program ensures “Cognitive Fidelity”, this is, it should faithfully represent the mental demands that happen in the real world. Traditional approaches focus instead on physical fidelity, which may seem more intuitive, but less effective and harder to achieve.”
Prof. Daniel Gopher, a fellow of the US Human Factors and Ergonomics Society

Following their success in aeronautics, Gopher’s team demilitarized the technology, further improved it, and incorporated Applied Cognitive Engineering (ACE), in order to develop cognitive training tools for other tasks. ACE's patented technology, called Cognitive Simulation, is proven to increase trainees' performance in their profession or task by 20% – 40%. The first obvious frontier for ACE’s revolutionary technology was… Sports.  

Down to earth: From fighter pilots to power forwards  

ACE soon developed The IntelliGym™, an online tool which uses Cognitive Simulation technology to improve players' performance in team sports. First up: Basketball. Starting with a study in the Wingate Sports Institute and moving on to train thousands of players in the U.S., the training program yielded remarkable results: improvement by 20%-40% in a variety of basketball standard parameters and statistics. Moreover, the trained teams recorded remarkably higher win ratios.

Strangely enough, flying a jet was found to be similar to playing hoops. Quick decision making under pressure, shot selection, anticipation, execution, team work and spatial orientation are all common skills to flying a jet and playing team sports.

Professor Gopher noted regarding the reapplication of his original technology that most of our daily activities, and specifically most of sports related activities, involve executive control processes that are responsible for aspects such as planning and sequencing activities, focusing attention, selecting between environmental aspects, switching and dividing attention between different actions, and more.

Various studies have confirmed that the skill of attention control is a general skill that may be applied to many different settings. Specifically, it has been shown that if trained, such attention control skills could be transferred and generalized across different settings and different task requirements, as long as the tasks maintained the same processing modality. (Gopher, Armony & Greenshpan, 2000; Armony & Gopher, 2002).

In addition to demonstrating the training of attention control skills, these types of results indicate the importance of the cognitive resemblance between training and real task environment.

In order to develop a basketball cognitive training tool, the researchers mapped the brain skills that are required for top performance in the game of basketball. With this map in hand, ACE's researchers designed a system that stimulates the exact same skill set. Although the players are merely performing with a keyboard in front of a monitor, if you screen the minds of the trainees, you’ll find that the skills (or the “brain muscles”) that are working are exactly those that are required during a real basketball game.

The trainer is therefore designed as a tool that trains multiple cognitive skills in a unified and comprehensive task environment. Trainer components are mapped to the cognitive skills that were identified in the initial task analysis (following years of research on the sports field / court / arena) and are incorporated as integral parts into a computerized game. 

Finally, ACE’s trainer philosophy emphasizes the cognitive fidelity of tasks (similar processing modalities, similar attention control requirements), and not their physical fidelity. For more on ACE’s research background see: ACE CONCEPTUAL OVERVIEW

Acquiring that ever-elusive hockey sense 

Since 2008, ACE and USA Hockey have partnered to develop The Hockey IntelliGym™, a cognitive trainer for ice hockey players. Interestingly, a deep joint research study showed that although ice hockey is much faster paced and more aggressive than basketball, many of the building blocks needed to develop the trainer were found to be similar. The initial stage of beta development with USA Hockey's National Team Development Program (NTDP) has coaches amazed at the difference the tool has made in their teams' performance.

Coach Kurt Kleinendorst
“...The mind is the most powerful tool that we have…We can develop our minds just like we can develop our skating…and that’s what this program allows us to do.“
Former U18 National Team Coach, Kurt Kleinendorst


Using head mounted camera footage in ice hockey to simulate real time players experience, researchers mapped the game in players’ brains just like they did with basketball, and developed the hockey cognitive simulator accordingly. 

Making the brain play the game: The ultimate assist

redefining the term "circuit training"

All of this hard science has produced a fairly easy-to-use product for players and their coaches, completely redefining the term “circuit training.”

The simulation stimulates and emphasizes various cognitive skills intentionally, as part of an optimized program. Of course, the simulation includes considerations involved in playing as one member of a larger team. For best results, the players are advised to practice 1-3 training sessions (30 minutes each) per week.

The Hockey IntelliGym™'s cognitive simulation of the game - in real time - entails no storyboard and no fantasy graphics. The goal is to integrate the details of the game into a player's barest attention, until anticipating plays becomes deeply instinctive. Most importantly, the program is individually tailored to each player's strengths and weaknesses, tracking progress and adapting to new level of play as the player develops their hockey mind.

In most cases, by the time the player has completed his or her 8-10 training sessions, the results are clearly visible. 

The beta results with the National Team Development Program had coaches cheering: In January 2009, the U17 team won the World U17 Hockey Challenge, beating teams from Canada, Russia, Sweden and the Czech Republic. That same year, the U18 team increased their win ratio from 29% to 70% after after going through the IntelliGym™ program, eventually winning the IIHF World U18 Championship – skating all the way to a gold medal.


More links to check out: 

More about the IntelliGym technology

The Basketball IntelliGym

Research and resources

Prof. D. Gopher on the science behind the IntelliGym

About this project

The Hockey IntelliGym™ cognitively stimulates the game in real time at your home computer. There is no storyboard and no fantasy graphics; the goal is to integrate the details of the game into a player's barest attention, until anticipating plays becomes deeply instinctive for him. We are in essence turning young players into puck predators.

Most importantly, the program is individually tailored to each player's strengths and weaknesses, tracking progress and adapting to his new level of play as he grows his hockey head.

Learn More

NTDP Post IntelliGym record

The Basketball IntelliGym™ goes to school

Several NCAA D1 powerhouses were the earliest to adapt the Basketball IntelliGym™. Universities such as Florida, Memphis, Kansas, Iowa, Georgia Tech, Kentucky, and others used the Basketball IntelliGym™ as part of their training regimen. The spectacular results during March Madness gave players and coaches something to celebrate.