In a sport defined by the finest of margins

Inside Mike Bryan’s brain


Originally published on 17/08/15

'"Mike has what we call a very high neurostrength,” says psychologist Dr Leslie Sherlin. “He is really good at being able to engage at a really high level, but his weakness is around the ability to turn that off, either in between sets or between matches. Being able to fully reduce the cortical activity enables maximum recovery.”

Sherlin is co-founder and Chief Science Officer at SenseLabs, a brainwave sensor and software company based in San Francisco. He started working with Mike Bryan, one half of the Bryan brothers, in 2008 in a bid to help the American hone his mental strength.

“The key to SenseLabs is you can really access your focus when you need it,” Bryan explains. “Keeping relaxed on the court is key. I think everyone plays their best tennis when they are relaxed but their mind is turned on.”

This is an extract from 'Brain Wave' in tennishead Volume 6 Issue 1. For more great features, in-depth gear reviews and stunning images subscribe to tennishead or download our latest digital magazine for free on your Apple or Android device. Search tennishead in the App Store or in Google Play.

Using SenseLabs’ new Versus program on his iPad, Bryan is able to train his brain in the same way that he would finesse his forehand during a practice session. By putting on a wireless headset that monitors brainwave activity, he will spend up to 30 minutes training by completing tasks that resemble video games.

“I have been using this race car which only moves if you are in the optimal brain state,” explains Bryan. “They don’t give you any instructions, you just look at the screen and the car will only move if you are in “the zone”. Your brain figures it out. It’s crazy – all of a sudden the car will jump forward a little bit. Then the car starts moving so your brain figures out where it needs to be.

“You can feel blood flowing to your head which is kinda cool. It’s like working a muscle. You can feel yourself getting really tired after 20 minutes.”

SenseLabs offers a personalised training plan for athletes based on their requirements. Dr Sherlin will meet with the athlete and their team in order to discover their goals.

“I always start the conversation by saying that I know a lot about brains but they are the expert both in their performance and their sport so if they can teach me about what they want to improve, we can collaborate together,” he explains. “It revolves around what are the goals of the individual and what opportunities do we have to improve? Is it around intensifying something that they are already very good at or are they looking to target a weakness?”

Sherlin, who re-specialised in sports psychology five years ago, was exposed to the concept of recording the electrical activity in the brain as an undergraduate. By using EEG – electro-encephalography – to measure that activity and determine characteristics about individuals, he realised it was possible to quantify mental capacity and create the opportunity for training.

“Athletes primarily fit a couple of characteristics,” explains Sherlin. “Either they are really great at most of the constructs that we measure, so we help them increase the intensity level of each of those domains. Others might have a real strength – maybe they are super-engaged or focused but struggle to shut it off. There are other athletes who are super-relaxed but sometimes have a hard time engaging for a long period of time.

“It is a very common finding for a lot of athletes they find it hard to switch off. They are perfectionists so they are constantly thinking, ‘How can I be better next time?’ That’s what makes them great and we don’t want to take that capability away from them. We just want them to be able to apply the appropriate amount of energy and then learn how to maximise the downtime."

Struggling to switch off after a match, Bryan found himself continuously re-living patterns of play in his mind. Repeatedly re-processing such information is what Sherlin calls “anxiety-like thought patterns”.  

“The pattern in the brainwave is a reflection of increased cortical excitation and so the training is designed to teach the individual to produce a different electrical signature,” explains Sherlin. “Through operate conditioning, whether visualisation or simulation techniques, they can learn how to adjust that and modulate it internally.

“It’s like teaching your body to learn any new skill; playing an instrument or a new drill in sport. You are teaching the brain to do something else and the more you practise it the more you are able to control it.”

“I’ve noticed my tennis has improved,” said Bryan. “I can concentrate longer. Our matches are generally an hour-and-a-half and before my concentration would waver during that time but now it is easier to sustain that focus, which is huge.

“Sleep has been a big difference too. Sometimes I’m a restless sleeper but I’ve been sleeping better. And I notice during the day I’m not as irritable and my memory seems a little better, too. When I’m really stressed I’ll just throw on the headset and it’ll bring me back, bring my breathing down and get me back in a good rhythm.

“Bob hasn’t tried it. I’m trying to get him on it too because I think he can benefit from it,” said Bryan of his twin brother. “But he doesn’t really buy into anything whereas I like to research different things to help me improve.”

With 16 Grand Slam doubles titles and more than 400 weeks at the top of the doubles world rankings, the Bryan brothers are the most successful doubles team in history. Their rivals will hope that Bob remains sceptical.

This is an extract from 'Brain Wave' in tennishead Volume 6 Issue 1. For more great features, in-depth gear reviews and stunning images subscribe to tennishead or download our latest digital magazine for free on your Apple or Android device. Search tennishead in the App Store or in Google Play.