DALTON Science, sports and split-second decisions.
A local police chief is working to introduce to the world of law enforcement the same scientific approach a Nashville-based company uses for the sports world. The thinking behind a professional or college athlete’s big play can also apply in the dangerous –and sometimes life-or-death –situations law enforcement and military personnel may encounter.
Things happen fast on a football field.
Brains don’t work the same way as when you’re sitting in an office or a classroom.
In fast-paced, high-pressure moments, each person’s brain processes with unique skill levels what he or she sees.
This can be to someone’s advantage or disadvantage and S2 Cognition is working to help athletes learn about how they are wired for quick decisions so they can work on these skills to ultimately perform better. Basically, S2 Cognition quantifies split-second instincts, decisions and reaction skills that are critical to in-game performance. The evaluation also is used in the scouting and recruiting process and draft decisions, and can help coaches, trainers and teams better develop their players.
S2 Cognition works with professional and collegiate teams and athletes and is now moving into the youth sports market. The company uses technology to evaluate athletes in nine different sports and is contracted with dozens of teams across Major League Baseball, National Football League, National Hockey League, National Basketball Association, National Collegiate Athletic Association and Major League Soccer. They also work with military special forces.
“It’s an easy leap to jump over to other settings and situations where human beings are put in high-pressure situations and have to make split second decisions,” Dr. Scott Wylie, co-founder of S2 Cognition, said in a phone interview from the Dalton police station.
A few years ago, Dalton Police Chief Ryan Pearson contacted the company with an interest in seeing if his son could be tested to help him with his performance on his high school football team. The company was just starting to move into the youth sports space and had limited places to take the S2 evaluation.
Pearson persevered, however, and kept in touch with the company. Eventually, S2 sent an evaluation system to Pearson and proctored the evaluation remotely for his son, Colin, who is on Dalton High School’s varsity football team and played as a sophomore quarterback last year for the Bulldogs.
In the sports world, the pair of cognitive neuroscientists behind S2 Cognition are helping athletes understand the dynamics and complexities of split-second decisions on the field, ice or the court. By quantifying split-second decision instincts, athletes can learn their strengths and weaknesses and what they need to work on.
This sparked an idea.
The longtime police chief and police academy instructor wondered if law enforcement officers could be evaluated the same way. Now, the two entities are working to partner, cooperate and learn from each other about why people make the decisions they make.
Wylie and his colleague, Brandon Ally, co-founded S2 Cognition and have PhDs in cognitive neuroscience and neuropsychology and are professors in the neurosurgery department at the University of Louisville School of Medicine. Wylie is the chief operating officer and vice president and Ally is the vice president of business development, and they share chief scientific officer duties. Wylie played baseball at the college level and Ally was a distance runner collegiately and professionally.
According to the website, s2cognition.com, the colleagues and friends were watching the 2014 NFL Draft and observed analysts breaking down the prospects with terms like “great instincts, plays faster than his footspeed, nose for the ball, field vision, etc.” What the two noticed was missing was a way to measure these skills. The concept was born and the business was formalized in 2016.
Wylie said during the phone interview he remembers having conversations with Ally about their kids getting involved in sports and how plays depend on making good decisions more than just movements, skills and mechanics. Brains are processing information and orchestrating motor reactions with incredible precision and speed. The scientists decided to assemble the best measurement tools from the cognitive sciences to quantify these decision instincts and skills.
S2 Cognition is growing its client base. Thousands upon thousands of players are in the company’s database, and they have a large database of special forces operators from the military. Working with the Dalton Police Department is a stepping off point and S2 Cognition can expand to work with other law enforcement agencies to complement its work with the U.S. military. The environment can’t be controlled like on a football field or basketball court, but police officers and military personnel find themselves in similar situations where their brains are forced to make split- second decisions in high pressure moments. Being aware of how one reacts and strengths and weaknesses during split-second decisions can be helpful; for example, when placing someone in a certain position on a team or in a position on the police force.
“The stakes of the game are serious,” Pearson said. “This isn’t like you take a basketball shot and you miss it. For police officers the stakes are high. If we make mistakes it could potentially cost people their lives.”
Here’s how the evaluation works:
Athletes perform a 30-45-minute cognitive evaluation with a series of tasks on a specialized laptop that measures and quantifies how they process what they see with their eyes, make decisions based on that visual input, and their ability to act on that information with millisecond-level precision. Results are instantly revealed in a detailed report featuring the individual scores of the athlete’s abilities – analyzing each of their strengths and weaknesses, along with their overall S2 Score, and strategies for how to better train these skills.
The term “split-second decision” is often tossed around in the news but much goes into understanding the mechanics and complexities behind these decisions made in millisecond timescales, Wylie said.
He said they have been thinking about branching into law enforcement since initiating their work with special forces.
In a news release in February announcing Vaden Landers as the new CEO replacing Tom Noland who will stay on as Chief Financial Officer, Landers said, “The S2 evaluation is truly innovative in that it quantifies an individual’s ability to link what they see – to what they decide – to what they do, however applied, whether in the world of sports, in a corporate setting, in law enforcement or the military. In the future I can envision a world where every competitive athlete has an S2 score, much in the same way golfers maintain a handicap, and those scores will allow athletes to better understand how they stack up against their competition and continually build upon the drill prescriptions S2 offers by way of the custom S2 Report that is generated post-evaluation.”
S2 Cognition takes a unique approach, Wylie said. There’s been a lot of focus on coming up with various “brain training” gadgets and games for athletes, and often the science is missing. S2 Cognition has really grounded its approaches, methods, and training tactics in the cognitive sciences.
“In some respects, we just got lucky that the sports world was ready for this new frontier of performance evaluation and development. We firmly believe that our success is a product of staying true to the science and building strong synergistic relationships,” Wylie said.
Training and testing
Athletes want to understand how they’re wired and their capacity for split-second decisions and where their weaker areas are so they can work on maintaining or improving performance. With law enforcement, it’s difficult to predict the situation and there are many uncontrollables when you’ve got to make a split-second decision. The evaluation could help provide insights to help officers better customize their training and preparedness and help departments design new training strategies.
“We see this being effective in the police academy,” said Pearson, who is the commander for the Police Academy at the Wayne County Career Center.
Results from evaluations can help with screening and making decisions on hires.
He said S2 Cognition made a trip to Dalton to study the officers at no charge to the station because of the pilot aspect of the project.
Wylie said he had a great experience and education engaging with the “professional and kind” officers in Dalton.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, S2 Cognition was beginning to make contact with other law enforcement groups. There are a lot of dynamics in high-pressure situations, Wylie noted. Besides physical and technical skills, experience, wisdom and knowledge come into play as well as psychological components, such as emotional states, attitudes, and personality characteristics. Cognitive abilities and split-second decisions are critical, but make up just one piece of the larger puzzle.
“Even equipped with the best cognitive skills, mistakes and errors can be made because of so many other factors. It’s important to pay attention to all of these facets of performance, but the quick decision-making piece has unfortunately been neglected in sports and other performance settings,” Wylie noted.
Wylie said he understands much of the training experience in law enforcement happens at the beginning. Like athletes, regularly offering seminars and training experiences to law enforcement can help keep cognitive skills and keep officers at the top of their game.
“Small improvements can have a big effect,” Wylie said.
Pearson said the next step is figuring out how to go from there.
“Now that we know things about our officers, how can we advance, how can we keep them sharp, how can we continue?” he said.
Pearson said he would like law enforcement to find ways to work on these skills and develop them in- house so they’re constantly working on and thinking about decision-making skills to keep officers sharp, ready, and prepared. Pearson said police departments and officers could use the evaluation results to help decide officers’ duties and responsibilities and who may perform well on specialized teams such as SWAT.
Both Pearson and Wylie agree that through the evaluation, just like athletes, law enforcement and military personnel can learn where they struggle and what they do well with. Overall, they can better understand where to target their training and how to adapt to skills that might not be as strong. The end goal is help performers make faster, better decisions in the most demanding of situations.
Pearson said Dalton PD can continue to help and cooperate with S2 Cognition as it builds its database and potentially takes the next big step in providing services for police departments like the company does for professional sports teams and the military.
“We focus on performance that requires split-second decisions, so law enforcement is a natural extension of what we do,” Wylie said.
For more information, as well as a sample S2 Evaluation Report, visit www.s2cognition.com.