In a small meeting room on Nike's campus in early July, with the simmering artificial turf to their backs, college football's top quarterback recruits received an introduction to the next phase in sports training.
The introduction came via former Ohio State and NFL quarterback Joe Germaine, director of system operations for Axon Sports, an Arizona-based performance company with roots in neuroscience -- the study of the brain and nervous system -- and an emphasis on cognitive training.
In that dimmed room -- which might explain why one quarterback, Ryan Brand, thought he was walking into an eye test -- Germaine unveiled technology shared and used by only a few colleges and professional sports organizations: a tool to help players make better decisions on the field and make those decisions faster.
There were no footballs involved, no passes and no pads; it was simply a computer program, one embedded within the framework of a playbook, and it took members of the Elite 11 quarterback camp by surprise.
At the most basic level, Axon's program takes an existing playbook -- in this case, the plays given to the camp's quarterbacks -- and layers it onto a wide range of defensive alignments, forcing users to digest and dissect formations and schemes in the seconds or split seconds before the snap.
More specifically, the program values speed as much as accuracy: Axon places heavy stress on the decision-making process, giving less and less time as you move through the system -- often just the time from the break of a huddle until a quarterback reaches the line of scrimmage -- to make the proper call.
And perhaps most important, in a time when the NCAA and college conferences are strengthening limits on physical contact in practice, Axon's training boards preserve the body while sharpening the brain.
The Elite 11 quarterbacks spent the first day training with the technology, learning the nuts and bolts off an individual Axon board, and worked on identifying basic coverages and blitz schemes. A day later, Germaine had the group dive into the playbook.
Brand, who called the technology "mind blowing," acclimated himself quicker than most. Between daily checkups on progress, Brand would tinker with the program -- shared on individual iPads -- whenever he had the chance, whether it was between meetings or back in his hotel room.
By the end of the week, Brand and fellow camper Brady White would grab their iPads at dinner and compete, battling to see who could get the higher score.
"You have to process everything really quick," Brand said. "It's very game-like. So when I'm on Axon and I've got my 50 reps and I walk onto the field, it's like the same time frame is moving in my head when I'm picking up my keys."
Watching the mind work
Axon was originally developed as a concussion-management company, importing its technology from its Australian parent into the USA. It has grown exponentially in the years since, just as it has altered its approach.
The company is now more involved in how the brain processes information -- how it gathers and uses data points, as when a quarterback eyeballs a defensive alignment -- and in translating neuroscience into elite athleticism.
The Axon program -- referred to in-house as Axon Sports' Cognitive Skill Training Systems -- was created three years ago, when the company began collecting data from the would-be professional athletes who came through Phoenix-based Athletes Performance training facility, since renamed Exos.
The athletes who first used the system when coming through the training facility -- Robert Griffin III and Andrew Luck, among others -- helped provide the baseline for Axon's program, which is now in use across eight sports: football, baseball, softball, volleyball, cricket, rugby, soccer and basketball, with football, baseball and softball on the collegiate level.
It is built for the elite athlete, built for repetitions and built to replace the physical grind -- particularly in football.
On the field, for example, Germaine estimates 100 repetitions would occupy two days of practice. With an Axon board, 100 similar snaps can take place in seven to eight minutes.
"When athletes come in here and train, we're not telling them, 'Hey, you have to come in here for an hour,'" Germaine said. "Come in here for 10 minutes and get 150 reps."
It's a different form of taxation: mental, not physical, and immediately transferable to on-field work.
"These days, the game is getting faster," Germaine said. "But why does the game feel like it has slowed down? It's because your brain is accurately anticipating things before they happen. And that's what we're training here."
The result is a technology not just innovative but timely: As the NCAA attempts to curb hitting in practice and football in general looks for ways to decrease head injuries, Axon allows users to replicate on-field experiences without physical wear and tear.
In July, the NCAA issued guidelines calling for no more than two live-contact practices a week during the season, no more than four contact practices a week during preseason camp and no more than eight contact practices during spring drills.
A company created in the vein of concussion management has, with a different approach, created a technology that does as much as any practice protocol to limit the contact a player at any position incurs daily.
"One thing we've said about our training is that the athlete's odometer is not running," Axon President Jason Sada said. "The physical odometer is not running when they're doing Axon training. Because of that, we believe we can help athletes still prepare and help programs get their athletes better prepared as practices get reduced."
Test drive at Oregon
The first college football team to implement Axon's system was Oregon, a program long willing to blend technology into its approach to creating a winning environment.
Oregon's relationship with Axon dates to Chip Kelly's tenure, which began when he was the Ducks offensive coordinator in 2007 and continued through the end of the 2012 season.
Kelly has since taken Axon to the NFL, where he enters his second season with the Philadelphia Eagles.
Sada and other members of the company knew some people at Oregon, he said, and they presented the concept to Kelly and the athletics department in 2011.
It seemed like a perfect marriage, Sada said: "So much of what they do is based on their ability to quickly decide."
Though another two Football Bowl Subdivision programs use Axon, Oregon served as the incubator.
The Ducks use it across the board, coach Mark Helfrich said, at each position and with specific emphases: Oregon shuffles between big-picture work and individual details, with the verbiage and terminology precise to each position.
"You're trying to have instant common sense," Helfrich said, snapping his fingers. "The ability to speed up your reaction time by recognition is what we're trying to do."
Some players use it daily, Helfrich said, others once or twice a week -- with usage in some part left up to the position coach.
One of the Ducks' most important adopters of Axon's program is junior quarterback Marcus Mariota, a preseason All-American and strong Heisman Trophy contender.
Mariota first used Axon when it was new to Oregon, which originally owned just one board; during its infancy with the program, Axon was used primarily as a tool for injured players or, for players such as Mariota, a way to augment on-field work with more reps.
"It's a great tool for college athletes," Mariota said. "It provides an opportunity to kind of get live reps without going through practice. It's all visual stuff, and the game's like 80% mental anyway. So if you can get more mental reps, it will help prepare you for the season."
Said Oregon offensive coordinator Scott Frost: "I think it's helped him. He's one of those guys that just does things well, so I watch him do the Axon board and he goes faster than I could go.
"I think that's a great tool for us. You know, our offense requires a tremendous amount not just to know but to know it quickly. Putting that kind of pressure on guys off the field as well as on the field really helps us."
It has helped most in identifying coverages just a split second quicker, according to Mariota.
"There's also been times where it's helped me with protections and seeing some type of zone blitz and different aspects of a defense like fronts or where the linebackers are," he said. "There's a lot of interactive stuff that you're able to do with an Axon board that really provides you a lot of good tools that you can use to help yourself."
Axon doesn't merely help Oregon break down a playbook or help Mariota find a quicker way to analyze and absorb a defensive alignment; it allows the Ducks to avoid the negative impact of football's physical nature, Helfrich said, while maintaining -- if not increasing -- the mental acuity needed to flourish in schemes built on complete accuracy in the decision-making process.
Said Helfrich, "Everybody's trying to find that way, whether it's a flight simulator or something else, to have as many trials with being able to make something really hard make some things easy -- and all in the comfort of an air-conditioned room."
Original headline: New tool sharpens mental muscles
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