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New brain-training app focuses on athletes

So much attention is paid to athletes’ physical conditioning, it’s easy to overlook the importance of critical thinking.

So much attention is paid to athletes' physical conditioning, it's easy to overlook the importance of critical thinking.

But even the greatest arm won't save a quarterback whose decision-making is slow.

Peter Fadde, a professor at Southern Illinois University, has studied sports-specific cognitive training programs. But data on how training the brain can help an athlete is still hard to come by.

That doesn't mean there isn't interest.

HeadTrainer, a new app available on Apple's App Store and Google Play, partnered with Duke Sports Science Institute and clinical scientist Deborah Attix to develop mental workouts in the form of games aimed at helping help athletes of all ages exercise their brains to enhance performance.

HeadTrainer's games are all sports-specific, directed at improving decision-making, processing speed, focus/concentration, visual/spatial awareness and memory.

In "Play Call," multiple receiver routes for a football passing play flash on the screen briefly, and then you are given verbal instructions to follow. Your score depends on your ability to remember those routes and precisely locate the pass.

Learning to avoid distraction is also a big factor in competition. The games try to re-create that experience through added noise or by inserting a math problem to distract you from processing information.

Professional athletes like the Seattle Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman, USA Women's Soccer player Alex Morgan and PGA Tour golfer Rickie Fowler offer pre-recorded supportive messages at different levels of the games.

"Cognitive training and objective measurement of progress are more important to physical performance than most people realize," explained Dr. Attix.

But will this app really help train your brain?

Just launched in June, HeadTrainer says it is collecting data from players to further research and improve their games.

But while the brain-training game industry is constantly expanding, there still isn't a lot of evidence to prove they work.

The Institute of Medicine in an April report urged caution about brain training games in general. While you might get better at the game if you practice enough (sound familiar, athletes?), the verdict is still out on whether that will translate to improved brain power away from the game.

Interestingly, here's what has been shown to improve cognitive function: Exercise.

So if you want to try a brain-training game, go for it. Just don't let it take time away from getting physical.

Read more Sports Doc for Sports Medicine and Fitness.