In the 2016 offseason, Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins got down to a bit of business he had neglected through his childhood and early adult life — watching every “Star Wars” movie.
Cousins ran through each volume in a single summer. But there was an O. Henry-esque twist to how Cousins had to watch them. He hooked up an electroencephalography (EEG) monitor to his brain that would measure its electronic activity while he was watching the movie — and if Cousins’ brain became too frenetic, the movie would shut off. If his brain lost focus, the movie would shut off. So with all the action on the screen, Cousins had to remain in the right mental state, or else he wouldn’t get to watch.
“We set the parameter to the DVD player that the movie will only play when his brain is calm and focused,” said Dr. Tim Royer, Cousins’ brain coach. “Not calm and relaxed. Not focused and stressed. But the exact firing that requires for the brain to be ‘in the zone.’ When an athlete is in the zone, they call it the flow state, there’s an actual electrical activity that happens in your brain when you’re doing that.”
All this was part of the extensive and atypical training Cousins does to mold his brain — so he can be in the right state of mind, all the time. Cousins is known as a bit of a nerd, and his mental conditioning is one of the reasons why.
Royer, president of a company called Neuropeak Pro, has worked with Cousins since the quarterback was at Michigan State, and he is the man Cousins charges with making sure his brain is in the right state of mind, all the time.
“He’s just been really good for me and my mental state and my overall health,” Cousins said. “He’s helping me to be at my best as a person and with my focus. He coaches me on my sleep and those kind of things, and he’s been a big asset for me — one of the many people in my corner, on my team if you will, that helps me be ready week in and week out.”
Royer and Cousins crossed paths when Cousins was struggling to juggle his on-field performance and classroom performance in college. Royer’s initial consultation involved giving Cousins tips on how to change his breathing patterns to affect his brain in a positive way. Royer gave Cousins a “medical-grade breathing belt” that would help him breathe more from his stomach and less from his chest.
“Most people breathe from their chest and it’s sort of very shallow and fast,” Royer said. “We get moving along so fast we just breathe that way all the time. And you need to teach the person to breathe the way that puts us in a more calm state, which is more from the stomach.”
Cousins saw his performance improve and kept up the relationship with Royer. Now Royer meets with Cousins either in person or by video conference before every game. One topic of heavy discussion is how Cousins is sleeping that particular week. Cousins sleeps with equipment that allows Royer to access sleep data for Cousins — how deep did Cousins sleep, how much rapid-eye-movement (REM) sleep did he get?
Royer came to an interesting if somewhat obvious conclusion from Cousins’ sleep patterns: “The quality of his sleep is directly correlated to the difficulty of the defense the next day. … He sleeps better quantitatively, he has more deep sleep, more REM sleep if the defense is easier.”
From the time a game ends on Sunday, Cousins is planning the next week from a sleep perspective. He and Royer will adjust his sleep cycles using light therapy, especially if the next game involves a time zone change. Royer said Cousins living in Minnesota and being in the Central time zone is almost perfect for calibrating his sleep cycles. This goes hand in hand with the brain training. Instead of watching “Star Wars,” Cousins is now bingeing a bunch of “30 for 30” documentaries from ESPN, Royer said.
“Before… every little thing would turn into an anxiety situation or a stress situation,” Royer said. “Now [his brain] is in a different spot.”
Royer has worked with a number of athletes in his career, but few are on the level of dedication to this aspect of training as Cousins, a mastermind of mastering his mind.
“He understands it so well,” Royer said. “He knows how his brain contributes to his sleep and how his sleep contributed to his production … and how the breathing affects the heart. He just understands all these systems and how they all are interrelated. I’ve never seen an athlete work as hard as Kirk.”
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