The Conspiracy

 

‘Ello, mate!”

Wearing a long, loose white T-shirt, black skinny jeans, and flip-flops, Andy Walshe, Ph.D., an enthusiastic, balding, white-haired Australian with energy for days, strolls into the Red Bull North America headquarters lobby.

I’m relieved. It’s February 2016, and I was nervous that Walshe, Red Bull’s director of high performance, would cancel. Not that I think Walshe is flaky—it’s just that I’m here to talk with him about some things that I’ve tried to talk with hundreds of athletes and trainers about over the past year, and virtually none of them wanted to.

These things sound unbelievable and have— supposedly—been helping athletes do the unthinkable, such as looking at their minds and brains and making them, in essence, more athletic. Athletes are using various machines, equipment, and software to do everything from testing their brainpower to inserting themselves into virtual worlds wherein they can train with all the mental stress and fear and challenges that they would face in the arena. Some of these things can literally look at their brains in action and sync them with their smartphones.

The brain, in the palm of the hand.

These devices aren’t only being used by fringe athletes looking for a gimmicky way to get ahead either: household names, from dozens of sports around the world, are using them. Tom Brady. LeBron James. Steph Curry. Kerri Walsh Jennings, the legendary Olympic beach volleyball player who calls these innovations “life-changing.” Jason Day, who has had them change his life, becoming the number one golfer in the world in 2015 after using one. I could keep going, with examples of both men and women, in dozens of sports—football, hockey, baseball, soccer, golf, tennis, surfing, skateboarding, UFC, myriad Olympic events.

My problem, however, is that none of them have wanted to talk to me about . . . well, there are so many tools for this sort of training that they have no single clean label, so I’ve gone with the extremely scientific term This Stuff. Ever since I first stumbled across some of This Stuff a few years ago, I’ve been calling athletes, coaches, trainers, and so on who use it. At first, they seemed excited—and then, I don’t know if they had an agent or a coach or someone else talk them out of it—but suddenly they changed their minds. Many people, “after consideration,” canceled interviews. That was on top of hundreds of others who either told me no or flat-out ignored me. Stonewalled all around.

“It’s a conspiracy, mate!” Walshe joked over the phone a month and a half ago.

If I was smart, I probably would have moved on, but I couldn’t.

For one thing, I felt like I’d stumbled into some sort of sci-fi alternate universe. For another, I wasn’t just finding cool stuff that could help athletes, but stuff that could help everyone. The more I learned, the more I needed to know, because as dramatic as it feels to say this, This Stuff started to seem like it might even be important for people beyond sports, too.

That, more than anything, is why Walshe agreed to meet: This Stuff is helping athletes win championships and medals, sure, but it’s also having a stunning effect on their lives. He says, “This isn’t just about sports. This is about the good of humanity. I mean, we’re getting into some next-level shit here.”

As Walshe guides me through the Red Bull facility and we pound espressos, he raves about athletes reaching within themselves in unprecedented ways that often take them beyond themselves.

Next-level shit indeed.

To get to the Red Bull performance lab and gym, we walk through a hallway. On a wall in that hallway is a massive logo: silhouetted in white against a black background, a minimalistic depiction of six stages of human evolution, from hunched-over caveman to upright human, followed by three dots, and then the next stage: a question mark.

 

So, the obvious question: Why?

“As humans, we can only train four things,” Dr. Michael Gervais told me by phone one day in early 2016.

Walshe put me in touch with him. Gervais—an athletic middle-aged surfer with a thick head of brown hair—is a prominent sports psychologist based in Marina del Rey. He’s worked with Red Bull athletes many times, including helping “Fearless” Felix Baumgartner leap from space for Red Bull Stratos in 2012. He currently serves as the Seattle Seahawks’ sports psychologist, and he works regularly with the likes of Kerri Walsh Jennings and many other elite athletes around the world.

“We can train our body, we can train our craft, we can train our spirit, and we can train our mind,” Gervais says. “Until recent times, we have been remiss on very clear and very practical strategies for performers to be able to train their mind.”

But how things have changed in recent times.

Until the last seventy-five years or so, you practiced a sport by, well, doing that sport. That was it. Then, over the last few decades, innovations in fitness and technology have enabled athletes to undergo ever more specific, specialized training in weight lifting, nutrition, and all manner of physical conditioning. Now athletes are constantly in the gym, in the film room, and so on, trying to snag nanoseconds’ and inches’ worth of advantages. And of course, that sort of training still matters and probably always will, but every possible physical advantage seems to have been mastered, exploited, and exhausted. I mean, swimmers shave their bodies to gain advantage.

On an individual level, there’s always more to learn, but in general, our knowledge of how to push athletes’ bodies has been maxed out. If you were to put the world’s best athletes through various physical tests in a lab, in all likelihood, most would test within a few percentage points of each other. And of course, come game time, often the guys who look like the best athletes aren’t always the best players anyway. No disrespect to the supremely conditioned Tim Tebow, but if ever hard work and competitive fire and Captain America’s body added up to winning football games, Tebow would’ve won every Super Bowl since he got drafted in 2010.

Now, with such thin margins of physical advantage at the elite levels of sport, athletes are turning to This Stuff to get better by way of their brain, the last gap left to exploit. This is the next natural stage of athletes’ evolution. They now pursue a certain mental athleticism.

To this end, This Stuff goes beyond sports into life, which, in many cases, is exactly the point. Walshe’s goal, which seems to be the goal of any good performance coach, is not only to make an athlete better in his or her sport, but to make their lives better: what helps someone’s life helps them perform, and what helps someone perform often helps their life.

And what is life, Walshe says, if not a performance of sorts?

“Performance is all in the definition,” he says. “It’s performance, going after an Olympic gold medal, same as it’s performance having the patience and compassion to be more present with your family and friends and children. It’s the same thing.”

I roughly organized all of This Stuff into four sections, according to the four ways we can train.

Mind. Body. Craft. Spirit.

Some of it overlaps from one category to another, which was inevitable, so I’ve logged my findings under each section according to how they help that particular part of a person, often by using one of the other parts. I won’t be including everything that falls under a particular category—that would get redundant and boring. Instead, my goal is an overview that explores some of the most compelling pieces of This Stuff by way of the incredible—and sometimes literally unbelievable—stories of athletes using it with remarkable results.

As I learned all of this, I felt . . . well, I felt a lot of things. First, awe. And then—I’m not proud to admit—a brief, though very real, raging jealousy. Where was this for ME ten years ago?! This whole search began, in large part, because I was a pro baseball prospect myself, and a hard worker, putting on nearly fifty pounds of muscle over four years in college—only to have those dreams derailed by anxiety, depression, and obsessive-compulsive disorder. Thankfully, I’m doing much better now, but I still have moments of enormous struggle, which is a big part of what motivated me during this search.

But then I just felt foolish. Even if I didn’t use This Stuff back then, how did I go so long thinking it was somehow worthwhile to invest so much in my body, and yet invest in nothing that helped keep my head in the game?

And then I was just confused. Why did it take so long for me, an athlete obsessed with figuring out the best ways to do anything, to learn about any of this?

That confusion deepened as I started calling athletes and teams to talk about it, only to be met with profound secrecy.

It’s a conspiracy, mate!

Truth is, I learned, it’s less conspiracy and more human nature. The tech might be new, but not the knowledge, or at least not most of it. Some is even ancient. There is a fringe subculture of people out there called “biohackers” and “neurohackers” and the like, who have been exploring some of This Stuff for some time now—but even then, it’s only in the last few years that we have seen any of it trickle into sports.

A couple days before I met Walshe, I was in Portland, Oregon, to see Herb Yoo, a scientist who worked at Nike before starting Senaptec, a cutting-edge company using futuristic technology to help athletes make their brains work faster.

One problem with all of this science and its application, Yoo says, is that nobody can agree on standardized ways to test and measure such things: “Even if you have some data and you want to share it with other people doing the same thing, you can’t always, because you could be using different techniques, different methodologies, different types of equipment. So if Babe Ruth was evaluated with one set of tools, and somebody else—Ty Cobb, or whoever—was measured in different units, different measurements, how are you supposed to compare the two? It’s just a lack of standardization. There’s no agreement on how to evaluate an athlete’s mind, brain, sensory performance, and etc.”

Another problem seems to be that This Stuff has been around for decades, but, Yoo says, “It’s been in laboratories, and people have been holding it secret, because it’s their competitive advantage.”

Even as “it” now makes its way out of the lab, that desire for competitive advantage is one of the biggest reasons for why I had such a hard time getting athletes to open up about using it. Where the Andy Walshes of the world see a boon for mankind, a way for humanity to move forward, many athletes, their teams, and researchers have found a secret weapon that they want to stay secret.

The petulant teenager in me wanted to blow that right up.

But then there’s the third reason why athletes don’t want to talk about This Stuff. Until recently, it has come in forms that have been so clinical and uncomfortable, and flat-out weird, that only the most die-hard biohackers were willing to give it a shot. Yoo’s business partner Joe Bingold says, “The concepts have been around for decades. We’re making [them] more accessible and convenient.” And there’s still a certain geeky, New Age whiff around a lot of This Stuff.

But even beyond the strangeness factor, there’s a simpler reason, which is the same reason it takes guys like me forever to get help, and why so many never get any help at all: it’s scary. For an athlete or coach to come out and say he is using some of This Stuff would almost certainly require him or her to acknowledge why—and that’s more unsettling, even more terrifying, than getting naked.

When I started researching all of this a couple years ago, I did not expect it to become as time-consuming and intensive as it did. I collected thousands of pages’ worth of articles from academic and scientific journals, I collected a small library’s worth of books (including more than one book from the For Dummies series), and I logged more than a thousand hours of interviews.

In the end, I focused on what applies directly to athletes, for a couple of reasons. For one, I want to see how the big world of sports is rapidly changing, and for the better, and how, one way or another, what helps athletes ends up helping all of us. For all the biohacking and whatnot going on out there, athletes, like most of us, don’t have time to waste on research, methods, or tools that don’t seem to have a direct and relatively immediate impact on their performance.

Even so, I had my brain hooked to a computer, and on a few separate occasions, electrocuted. I had needles shoved into my scalp. I spent thousands of dollars running around North America and testing dozens of options as I tried to answer questions that might not even have answers. Sometimes I felt like an addict consumed only by the thought of my next fix. I spent hours in sensory deprivation chambers, in which, more than once, I may have lost my mind.

What I’m saying is, consider yourself warned.

What I’ve found, however, is a dazzling look at the future, the crux of it boiling down to something that Herb Yoo said to me: “You have to know the world before you can act upon it.”

Because look, and here’s the guts of the whole matter: This Stuff shows us that for athletes—and so for anyone—“getting their mind right” or “getting their head in the game” (or whatever other cliché you prefer) isn’t a nebulous concept, separate from the physical part of a person.

This Stuff throws into sharp focus exactly how the mental aspects of a human being are every bit as real as, say, their muscles. The mind flows through the brain like air through the lungs, like blood through the heart. And This Stuff shows people the world within their heads, that they may act upon it.

Much of this left me in awe of how much power it seems athletes may actually have to make themselves better. Sometimes I was also left in an almost tearful rage at people who have been hiding the details of this new frontier.

But mostly, it left me giddy with wonder and hope for what’s coming next, and not only in sports, but also for myself—which is to say, for all of us.