The Revolutionary New Tool That Will Change The Way We Coach.

Mental training has always been a critical component in maximizing athlete potential in sports. There have been limited developmental tools for coaches to use to this end. Until now. Let’s explore.

Coaches have long discussed an athlete’s ability to see the play unfold or to be 1 step ahead of the play.

Wayne Gretzky was documented to have an innate ability to recognize a play prior to it happening.  His anticipation was remarkable.  Michael Jordan was said to have an innate will to come out on top. To go the extra step to lead his team to victory.

In fact, if you read about any great athletes, at some point the discussion will roll “to their game smarts”. In hockey it is referred to as “hockey sense”. Every sport has intangibles that the coach tries to identify.  A “nose for the ball” or “sees the whole field” are often used in describing these intangibles.  

In recent years, in developing the mental side of the game, mental skills coaches have come into the fray.

Sports psychology is the study of how psychology influences sports, athletic performance, exercise, and physical activity.

What do sports psychologists do?

Sports psychologists will look at either educational or clinical approaches to enhancing performance of the athlete. Topics can be wide ranging and often include leadership behavior, individual differences, psychological rehabilitation, group cohesion and peak performance.

This is where areas such as visualization, building confidence, mindset and preparation (including pre event routine) all come into play.  A mental skills coach can help with focus under pressure, recovering from injury, motivation and focus.

The sports psychologist or mental skills coach has tremendous value is helping an athlete reach his/her full potential.

Evolution of analytics in sports.

The world of analytics in sports is starting to play a major role, especially at the higher level.  As coaches, regardless of sport, we have heard or seen the breakdown of how different metrics can be analyzed in evaluating success in a game situation.

Baseball for example, being heavily statistics oriented forever, is a great example where player metrics now dominate the evaluation process. Everything from exit velocity on hitter contact to isolated power. Framing runs is a metric, launch angle, pop time, spin rate, batting average on balls in play all the way to deserved run average are used in evaluating different levels of performance.

Progressive coaches who focus on learning use analytics to confirm their evaluation, and build out their coaching strategy and tactics. The great hockey coach Scotty Bowman, now in his 80’s, talks of analytics as being a tool to confirm the “eye test”.  In his day, the “eye test” had limited stats supported decisions. In other words they were subjective, not objective. Then came video analysis to quantity, then came analytics to the point where elite teams now hire analytics experts to support decisions they want to make on player personnel.  But these have always been a analysis of physical metrics, not mental.

LSU Football and Vanderbilt University Baseball are arguably 2 of best programs in their respective collegiate sports. They consistently compete at the highest level for championships, which means they consistently recruit talent and develop players. They are also 2 of the programs that consistently send players to the next level.

Have you ever wondered why these programs perform consistently, while others, with similar budgets struggle to compete for a championship?

The 2 teams most recently in the world series (part of 10 MLB teams currently using this system), and one of the most successful NFL draft classes of all time also have a common link to LSU And Vanderbilt.

New evidence is suggesting that LSU and Vanderbilt may have a secret weapon.

That secret weapon is a method that combines mental skills training with analytics.  It is designed to help athletes and coaches understand how to develop the skills required to be at their best in competition.

This method/secret weapon has brought a scientific, objective approach to subjective intangibles.  It has focused documenting the cognitive abilities that are required to be successful in sports.  It is putting analytics and metrics to qualities that were only subjective to the “eye test” in the past.

Two former Vanderbilt professors Brandon Ally and Scott Wylie started a company called S2 Cognition in 2016 with the purpose of providing a system for assessing and developing cognitive abilities in young athletes.  Ally was a University of Tennessee runner, and Wylie is a former college baseball player, both experts in studying the brain with PhDs in neuropsychology and cognitive neuroscience.

The company opened in 2016, but their work has been a lifetime in the making.

Ally’s main area of expertise is visual memory, which is one of the first things that erodes in those who have Alzeimer’s Disease. This was his first area of focus. Wylie, in stops at Virginia, Louisville and Vanderbilt, worked primarily with patients with Parkinson’s disease, focusing on motor function. They developed and used tests to develop data on how to help patients with the “cognitive rehabilitation” and link them to focus on real-world activities.

With their sports background, there was a natural curiosity on how this approach could help athletes and coaches. They started using this approach in evaluating the athlete “intangibles” we spoke of earlier.

Similar tests used in Parkinson’s and Alzeimer’s patients were adapted to the cognitive demands of athletes, and S2 was born.  These tests evaluate cognitive function in young athletes and measures things like visual processing, rhythm and timing, motor control and instinctive learning.

An S2 score is not just assessing skills, the results also provide a framework in developing plan for athletes to improve in the cognitive skills that will make them better.

Photo from S2cognition.com


From BusinessWire (link in resource section below):

“Every athlete brings a unique set of physical skills and cognitive instincts to the game,” Dr. Wylie said.

“We can now measure the cognitive instincts and develop sport-specific training strategies and drills to help athletes be the best decision-makers they can be given their specific brain wiring. We’ve learned we can actually move the needle on performance,” Dr. Wylie added.

“The on-field training strategies we have developed are based on the science of how these decision systems work and can help every athlete perform better, even the elite level pro athlete.”


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The evidence of the program effectiveness is compelling:

S2 Cognition and LSU Football

In 2016, LSU brought in a new head coach who embraced the opportunity to work with the information that S2 could provide. Since that time LSU has gone 40-9 heading into this year, with its first ever college football championship in 2019 after going 15-0.   Last year they sent 14 players to the NFL draft, of which 10 went in 3rd round or higher.

The Director of Athletic Training at LSU was quoted in a recent article in The Athletic (link below) comparing getting this information as “almost like cheating”, referring to the competitive advantage it provides.  All athletes that went in the draft were classified as elite mental processors, which further documents that their success was not by accident.

LSU did not just learn about its players through the S2 testing. It has used drills to work on weaknesses, changed positions at times and employed receivers and pass rushers on the left or right side based on results.  The benefits run deep, with some players being visual learners and would need to watch more film. Others would need more of the actual physical application as the best way to learn. Some are more instinctive. With this data, the coaches can customize ways to teach.

The S2 website compares two actual, unnamed NFL safeties, one of whom was drafted in the first round and one in the fourth.  

The first-rounder’s S2 score: 22, including a 2 in spatial memory, a 3 in perception speed and a 40 in decision complexity. The fourth-rounder’s S2 score: 85, including a 57 in spatial memory, a 64 in perception speed and a 97 in decision complexity.

The first-rounder did not get a second contract in the NFL; the fourth-rounder got one at $14.5 million a year.


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S2 and Vanderbilt Baseball:

S2 entered baseball with a connection to the Marlins organization. One of their coaches used the program and saw immediate changes in his hitters. His name is Paul Phillips and you can see an 8 minute interview with him below in the resource section.  He now works for S2.

Phillips joined the S2 staff to bring coaches credibility to the program, and they used that with the Vanderbilt connections to introduce to their baseball program in 2018.   Vanderbilt was a very good program before, but now, they have another edge to help their players perform better.  

The S2 website has a testimonial from Austin Nola, you may remember his name from the recent MLB playoffs. The Padres traded for him in September and he was a big part of their run into the playoffs. His story is story book stuff. He made his MLB debut in 2019, after 8 years in the minors and he credits S2 as being a big part of that leap to MLB.

The S2 staff also mention in The Athletic article how S2 has improved the value of prospect players heading into the draft. It also in theory can have a reverse effect.  A top prospect who scores low may see his value go down. However, the developmental side can address this.

Don’t be surprised if you start to see S2 scores rank right up there with other physical prospect evaluation metrics in your respective sports.

The real excitement.

So far most of this analysis has covered the impact of S2 scores and development on elite athletes. The most exciting component however is the impact of this tool on the development of young athletes.*

*Ok, the most exciting component maybe the founders of S2 working with Parkinson’s and Alzeimer’s patients. This would be the 2nd most exciting!

Coaches who have taught school can relate to the value of having information on how our students learn.  Understanding that a student has trouble processing the written word for example, significantly changes the instructional methods.
Think of S2 Cognition as bringing the same type of information but applied to athletics.  S2 have indicated that they plan on expanding their methodology to youth sports. 

This is where millions could benefit.  S2 started in 2016 as a company, but they now have thousands of athletes in their database that allow them to create norms for those of similar age and experience. This will continue to develop.

If organizations/coaches had information on how their athletes process instruction and learn skills, what they are strong at and where they struggle, then we can be more efficient in building them up. In helping them get better. Eureka!

If a young baseball hitter struggles in picking up the ball out of the pitchers hand, it wont matter how good their mechanics are, they will only have so much success.   This is where it gets really exciting.

If a hockey coach knew that athlete a saw the game very differently from the left side vs the right side, then he can put him/her in a position to succeed.

Can you think of scenarios in your sport where visual tracking, spatial awareness, motor control, impulse control, instinctive learning scores could make a difference on how you coach?

Could this help with drop out rates?

Could this help with building self-esteem?

How many young students were tagged as dumb academically until learning disabilities were assessed and teaching strategies modified to help them?

Could S2 be an answer to the same challenges in sports?

It looks like they are on their way.

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Information for this article was gathered from below resources.

The S2 website: https://www.s2cognition.com/

The article in The Athletic,

The article from Business Wire.

An interview with Paul Phillips of S2 Cognition, Director of Baseball and Softball development and former MLB coach .