Head games: How Kirk Cousins uses brain training to get an edge

MINNEAPOLIS -- Every quarterback in the NFL has his own disciplined regimen to help him withstand the physical and mental demands of the position. Tom Brady’s process of achieving peak physical performance blew up into a well-known brand known as the TB12 Method.

It’s no different for Kirk Cousins.

The countless hours the Minnesota Vikings quarterback pours into perfecting his craft are tied together by something that has been a part of his daily life for the past seven years: brain training.

Through neurofeedback, which is a real-time measurement of the brain’s activity, and the coaching he gets with his breathing and monitoring of sleep, the 30-year-old Cousins has a method for mitigating stress, recalling and processing information at a rapid rate and sharpening the peripheral and mental awareness he needs to perform at his best.

Cousins often refers to the intentionality with which he lives his life as the basis for everything he does. The effort he has put in to train his brain is a major part of that and gives him an edge in an area that may compensate for any physical attributes he lacks.

The neurological data he and his doctors at Neuropeak Pro can dissect lets Cousins know when his brain is functioning at its highest level and what he can do to stay in that zone for an appropriate period of time.

An old adage says the most important 10 inches in football are between one’s ears. Just like the hours of film he watches, live and virtual reps he takes, a strict diet, workout routine and recovery process, brain training is as important as anything else to Cousins.

"Quarterbacking isn’t as physical as it might seem," Cousins said. "Yeah, we’re professional athletes, but when you look at the top guys in the world, a lot of them are 40 years old. I always joked, and this is no disrespect to Tom Brady, but he kind of looks like a baby giraffe when he runs around. If it was all about being the biggest, fastest, strongest, a lot of us wouldn’t be in this position.

"I think quarterback comes down far more to the mental, to the nonphysical in the sense of your leadership, your emotional makeup, your ability to process information and have spatial awareness. All those things are hard to measure. There aren’t as many tests at the combine and that kind of thing. I am trying to train those things the best I can because I realize that’s the key to being a really good quarterback."

How it works

Situated somewhere at 30,000 feet in the air at the beginning of October, Dr. Tim Royer was reading an electroencephalogram (EEG) test of Cousins’ brain activity that the quarterback had taken the night before. During the NFL season, Cousins runs up to three or four sessions of medical-grade EEG testing per week as part of his brain training regimen. A picture of what Cousins’ brain is doing at the beginning and end of each session is sent via text to Royer.

Royer, a neuropsychologist, has been working with Cousins since the quarterback's final year at Michigan State in 2011. Over the past eight years, Royer has helped Cousins set goals and optimize his performance through measuring what his nervous, respiratory and endocrine systems are doing at a given moment. The equipment used to take the EEG (Neuropeak Pro provides its clients with lightweight mobile devices to conduct the testing themselves from anywhere -- all it takes is connecting a couple of wired electrodes to the head) provides Cousins with a massive dashboard for everything in his body. It tells him what his heart is doing, what the surface of his skin is reacting to and any other physiological functions to determine his baselines for when he’s stressed, focused, etc.

On this day at the beginning of Week 6, Cousins’ EEG was all over the place. He had just gotten home from beating the Philadelphia Eagles and his sleep and focus were off. By Thursday, back on his routine, the EEG was looking perfect.

"It’s like any muscle group," Royer said. "It has to recover. During that time, we’re able to see what the neurological recovery is."

The common denominator of any type of recovery is rest, most critically sleep. Making sure Cousins is getting the right kind of sleep is something Royer bases on the QB’s sleep architecture, which is a blueprint that lets the doctor see what’s happening from moment to moment in the sleep cycle.

The data is tracked through a polysomnograph, which measures brain waves while one is sleeping. There are four main components Royer looks to measure: how many times the brain awakens at night, how long it takes for the brain to wind down so Cousins can go to sleep (the ideal range is between 10 and 17 minutes once he lies down), how much deep sleep he’s getting (what Royer calls the "holy grail of sports" because this is when hormones are made) and the QB’s rapid eye moment (if Cousins’ REM is off, Royer says, he’s wasting time in the film room because what he’s processing is not getting stored).

Cousins needs nine hours of sleep to function properly during the day. What happens when he’s asleep is going to determine his processing speed, how well he remembers things and, most importantly, his hormone production. Royer believes athletes need to be making testosterone to perform at a high level and stress can inhibit that production.

Sleeping in hotels every weekend during the season coupled with hectic travel schedules can mess with Cousins' routine. Royer programs Cousins’ sleep for road games based on the time zones he’ll be traveling to. The night the Vikings lost to the Buffalo Bills in Week 3, Cousins was already beginning to get acclimated to Pacific time, two days before the Vikings packed up and headed to Los Angeles. A regimen of melatonin and blue light therapy allows Royer to program Cousins for any time zone.

"I have a big enough sample size over seven years to say it has helped. I think it is worth it for the long haul. And I'm doing it not just to be a good football player, but I think the best, healthiest version of myself also off the football field, too." Kirk Cousins

Royer says this type of sleep monitoring was a reason behind Cousins’ success in his first trip to London in 2016. The Redskins tied the Cincinnati Bengals, but Cousins put on a record day at Wembley Stadium, throwing for 458 yards, 38 completions (breaking his previous team record of 33) and recording the 16th 300-yard passing game of his career.

Cousins has honed his cognitive functioning in other ways. During the 2016 offseason, he watched every Star Wars movie as a way to measure his brain activity when hooked up to an EEG monitor. The point of the exercise was for Cousins to monitor his sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight -- healthy for when our lives are in danger) and parasympathetic nervous system (conserving energy, slowing heart rate, lowering blood pressure). If his brain lost focus or exhibited high beta waves, which are associated with stress and anxiety, the movie would shut off. Given that the brain is the best problem-solving device in the world, when the movie skipped or paused because Cousins’ activity spiked, it forced his brain to go to work to find an answer for why that was happening.

It’s the type of activity Cousins could translate to the field, helping him be cognizant of situations that would cause him to fold under pressure, like throwing an interception in the red zone. Royer and his team aimed to hijack Cousins’ system via the movie mythology. The body is conditioned to go into a fight-or-flight state when pressure is at its peak, which is not optimal for performance. The goal is to find that perfect middle ground -- i.e. performing calmly in tense situations.

"When people’s brains aren’t optimized, their brain gets stuck," said Tim Bergsma, the managing director of Neuropeak Pro. "They stay in stress mode. They can’t do this extra shift from one situation to the next. They just get stuck. We’re giving [Cousins] the ability to navigate all those situations at the level of an expert, where he can go from a calm situation to a high-pressure situation to an expert. He can make those transitions flawlessly."

Cousins convinced 'it has helped'

So does it really work?

The way Cousins says he can tell the brain training is paying off goes beyond the situational focus he has to hone his performance in high-stress moments during a game. Training his brain to be as alert late in the game as it is when he takes his first snap helps prevent decision lapses and increase the likelihood of satisfactory execution.

"I’d like to think the training can help with all that I’m processing mentally, like remembering to send a motion or a shift, remembering the snap count, having my eyes where they need to be, going through the progression quickly but not hurried and not rushed," Cousins said. "Playing fast but not playing rushed. I think those are all things I’m trying to get better at and using this training to help with.

"I also think anticipatory stress is always something I’m trying to combat. In other words the 24 hours, the 12 hours leading up to the game, there can be a lot of butterflies and a lot of anxious feelings and nervous energy. I think he helps me process that and handle that so that it isn’t crippling or paralyzing in any way."

Royer, who also works with NBA teams, including the Orlando Magic and Portland Trail Blazers, and has a client list that he says includes other NFL players, including Super Bowl MVPs, talks with Cousins for an hour over the phone the night before every game to go through his sessions during the week to determine where he’s progressing and where he can make improvements.

The payoff might not be tied directly to a specific statistical mark, such as throwing for 4,000 yards or 25 touchdowns, or cutting down on his number of fumbles in a season, but Cousins believes there is a palpable effect.

"He told me [in October] that he’s playing at a different level, at a high level than I’ve ever played," Royer said. "And he said what contributes to that is all the brain training he’s done. He’s noticing rather than becoming impulsive or pressured, that he’s actually gaining seconds in decision-making because his brain is in a better place."

Added Cousins: "I can look back now and see there’s a correlation between the periods where I’ve been very intentional with the neurofeedback and with the sleep and just staying on top of these things. I feel like I’ve played my best football during that time period. Now you can say maybe they’re not related, but it has correlated and then there have been times where I’ve drifted away from it and I can tell I haven’t played my best.

"I have a big enough sample size over seven years to say it has helped. I think it is worth it for the long haul. And I’m doing it not just to be a good football player, but I think the best, healthiest version of myself also off the football field, too."