Can Biofeedback Training Enhance Athletes’ Sport Performance?

In recent years, biofeedback training has become increasingly popular for its proven success for athletes in sports where it autonomic responses need to be better controlled, such golf, pitching in baseball, tennis and Olympic sports…what I refer to as “precision” sports.  The aim of this research was to test whether an 8-week period of exposure to biofeedback training could improve the psychophysiological control over competitive anxiety and enhance athletic performance in participating subjects.

METHODS:

Participants of this study were highly competent athletes, each training in different sport disciplines. The experimental group consisted of 18 athletes (4 women, 14 men), whereas the Control group had 21 athletes (4 women, 17 men). All athletes were between 16 and 34 years old. The biofeedback device, Nexus 10, was used to detect and measure the psychophysiological responses of athletes. Athletes from both groups (control and experimental) were subjected to stress tests at the beginning of the study and once again at its conclusion. In between, the experimental group received training in biofeedback techniques. We then calculated the overall percentage of athletes in the experimental group compared with those in the control group who were able to control respiration, skin conductance, heart rate, blood flow amplitude, heart rate variability, and heart respiration coherence. One year following completion of the initial study, we questioned athletes from the experimental group, to determine whether they continued to use these skills and if they could detect any subsequent enhancement in their athletic performance.

RESULTS:

We demonstrated that a greater number of participants in the experimental group were able to successfully control their psychophysiological parameters, in comparison to their peers in the control group. Significant results (p < 0.05) were noted in regulation of GSR following short stress test conditions (p = 0.037), in regulation of HR after exposure to STROOP stressor (p = 0.037), in regulation of GSR following the Math and GSR stressors (p = 0.033, p = 0.409) and in achieving HR – breathing coherence following the math stressor (p = 0.042).

CONCLUSION:

One year following completion of the training program, all participants from the experimental group indicated that they were still using the biofeedback – psycho-regulation skills. Furthermore, these participants uniformly reported believing that these skills had enhanced their athletic performance and general well-being.

KEYWORDS:

Biofeedback training; CSAI-2; SAS; athletes; competition; pre-competitive anxiety; stress tests

The Key Fundamentals Of Biofeedback For Athletes

Learn How To Control Both Body And Mind When Under Stress

As athletes we are all striving to perform our best when it really counts.  A very important part of peak performance is the ability to remain as calm and focused as possible during the most critical times.  In order to stay as relaxed as possible You need to realize that your brain controls your body and  that your body controls your brain.  It’s a fundamental fact that many athletes overlook.

The activity in your brain changes every second based on what your body is doing — a process called biofeedback. Biofeedback is defined as “A technique that trains people to improve their health by controlling certain bodily processes that normally happen involuntarily, such as heart rate, blood pressure, muscle tension, and skin temperature.”  A report published in Mental Health in Family Medicine uses the biofeedback definition as “a mind–body technique in which individuals learn how to modify their physiology for the purpose of improving physical, mental, emotional and spiritual health.”

In traditional biofeedback electrodes attached to your skin, or in some cases, sensors held in your hands, measure these processes and display them on a monitor. With help from a biofeedback therapist, you can learn to change your heart rate or blood pressure, for example. At first you use the monitor to see your progress. But eventually you will be able to achieve success without a monitor or electrodes. Biofeedback is an effective therapy for many conditions, although it is primarily used to treat high blood pressure, tension headache, migraine headache and chronic pain.

You can also alter your brain’s function with conscious biofeedback simply by paying attention, which can have a huge impact on your thoughts, feelings, emotions, and stress level.

How does biofeedback work?

Researchers are not sure exactly how or why biofeedback works. However, there does seem to be at least one common thread: most people who benefit from biofeedback have conditions that are brought on or made worse by stress. For this reason, many scientists believe that relaxation is the key to successful biofeedback therapy. When your body is under chronic stress, internal processes like blood pressure become overactive. Guided by a biofeedback therapist, you can learn to lower your blood pressure through relaxation techniques and mental exercises. When you are successful, you see the results on the monitor, which encourages your efforts.

Your brain is perfectly capable of noticing what’s going on with your body — heart rate, breathing, muscle tension, sweating — and in fact, it does all the time anyway. To practice conscious biofeedback, you just have to become aware of this happening.

So whenever an athlete has reached a plateau or finds himself or herself constantly being beset by temper tantrums, choking and overwhelming feelings of anxiety during competition investigate biofeedback as a way to calm the nerves, body and mind when it counts the most.

How Much Does Anxiety Effect Performance Under Pressure?

Anxiety’s effect on visual gaze (and performance)

Ample research has explored the effects of anxiety on sports performance. Here we discuss a study that specifically examined the effect of anxiety on visual gaze – specifically “quiet eye”.

Quiet eye refers to the length of the final fixation prior to initiating movement. Typically, longer fixations on the target are a characteristic of successful performance. For instance, when shooting a basketball, quiet eye refers to the amount of time fixating on the ring prior to executing the skill.

The study design

Wilson & colleagues asked participants to perform a basketball free throw shot in two conditions – a low threat condition (aimed to minimise anxiety) and a high threat condition (aimed to increase anxiety). The tactics employed in the high threat condition to raise anxiety included:

  • explaining that performance would be compared with teammates
  • offering financial incentives
  • providing noncontingent feedback, whereby participants were informed that they were performing more poorly compared to others than they really were

The results

Results highlighted that increases in anxiety resulted in shorter quiet eye durations. Significantly, this also led to poorer performance, as evidenced by few successful shots.

Implications

The quiet eye period appears to be a critical factor influencing motor performance during aiming tasks (e.g., basketball shooting, golf putting, etc..), particularly when anxiety is heightened. Training quiet eye therefore appears to be a fruitful avenue for improving motor performance (e.g., see work by Greg Wood).

Reference

Wilson, M. R., Vine, S. J., & Wood, G. (2009). The influence of anxiety on visual attentional control in basketball free throw shooting. Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 31, 152-168.

2 Trackbacks / Pingbacks

  1. What is Quiet Eye? – skill acquisition research
  2. How does working memory influence performance under pressure? – skill acquisition research

How Much Do Our Expectations Effect Outcomes In Sports?

Are You Winning Or Losing The Expectations Game?

Whether it is our internal dialog before a game or match or coaches consciously or unconsciously expecting an outcome what we think and believe may happen often ends up becoming reality.  The psychological term for this is Expectancy Theory, and there have been many studies over the years that prove how powerful both internal and external forces are when it comes to how we eventually perform.

Expectancy theory is defined as “that work motivation is dependent upon the perceived association between effort and potential outcomes,  and that individuals modify their behavior based on their calculation of anticipated outcomes” (Chen & Fang, 2008). In other words, it can help explain why an athletes perform or don’t perform at a particular level.  What athletes and coaches truly believe will happen most often becomes reality.

This has a practical and positive potential of improving motivation because it can, and has, helped coaches create training, practice and motivational programs to improve both individual’s and team’s performance.

And on the flip side it explains why many athletes do not live up to their potential.  If an athlete, coach or team does not believe they succeed then that is probably what will happen.  This theory also provides the idea that an athlete’s motivation comes from believing they will get what they desire in the form of a reward. “Although the theory is not “all inclusive” of individual motivation factors, it provides leaders with a foundation on which to build a better understanding of ways to motivate individuals” (AEC, 2008). Expectancy theory is classified as a process theory of motivation because it emphasizes individual perceptions of the environment and subsequent interactions arising as a consequence of personal expectations.

The theory states that athletes have different sets of goals and can be motivated if they believe that:

  • There is a positive correlation between efforts and performance.
  • Favorable performance will result in a desirable reward.
  • The reward will satisfy an important need.
  • The desire to win is strong enough to make the effort worthwhile (Lawler, Porter. L., Vroom, 2009).

One alternative to this theory is that many athletes develop the “I will prove them wrong” or “Chip on the Shoulder” mentality that can overcome other’s perceived shortcomings of the athlete.   This can be a very powerful motivational tool for exceeding one’s own expectations.

The question then becomes how do some athletes, coaches and teams rise above and surpass expectations while others do not?  And how can we raise our level of expectations, and eventual performance, without becoming delusional and thus being demotivated when we do not meet our expectations?  In my next blog I will dive deeper into ways to align expectations with training, motivation and eventual improved performance.

 

 

 

 

Is Biofeedback The Key To Taking Your Game To The Next Level?

Most athletes wanting achieve peak performance in various sports spend an inordinate amount of time concentrating on their physical movements to improve results.  However, many studies have shown that by also employing biofeedback and neurofeedback techniques to help control breathing, focus and relaxation athletes may be able to greatly improve their overall game during competition.  To be your best each and every movement you make as an athlete must be precise and use the least, most efficient effort possible. Proper breathing, focus and relaxation are essential to this process.

Biofeedback is a heavily researched technique and a technology that trains individuals to alter brain activity, blood pressure, muscle tension, and heart rate that are not usually controlled voluntarily. Devices can be used to monitor electrical responses of skin and muscles, skin temperature, heart rate, sweat gland activity or brain wave activity.  Other similar techniques involving mind-body control such as meditation, yoga and martial arts go back centuries and have helped people achieve greater results in many different areas.

With biofeedback, also called HRV (heart rate variability), training  you employ techniques to breathe deeper and slower to maximize your heart function, allowing proper blood and oxygen to flow throughout your body, most importantly, to your brain. 20% of the energy of every breath you take goes straight to your brain. For the first several minutes of every biofeedback training session you learn to focus on improving your breathing, getting immediate feedback of your HRV, thus creating a feedback loop whereby the more you concentrate on deep breathing and focus the better HRV results you see get.

In addition, during sports competition mental attitudes account for up to 80% of success.  “Anxiety of performance increases the probability of mistakes during the competition” (Peper, Schmid, 1998). Therefore, management of stress and anxiety are essential for optimal performance.  Biofeedback, neurofeedback and HRV training can help monitor physiological and psychological reactions, highlight how positive or negative thoughts are affecting those reactions and train the athlete for improved concentration.  It can also assist them in identifying and eliminating disturbing thoughts and feelings, and reframing self-talk more positively.

A great example of this was during the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing researchers demonstrated how biofeedback can help athletes reach their peak performance potential, achieve personal bests and win more medals.  In Beijing, a team of biofeedback professionals worked on 358 Olympians, all of who were considered good but not great (not realistic medal contenders).  The group ended up winning 32 medals which far exceeded anyone’s expectations.

Now I am not implying that biofeedback is some miraculous technique that can take an average athlete and make him or her into an Olympic gold medalist overnight, with no other training.  But rather I do firmly believe the fundamentals of biofeedback, neurofeedback and HRV training can be an important addition to any athletes training regimen.

In my next blog post I will describe several ways to learn and utilize biofeedback techniques that can be used to not only improve your sports game, but also be used in many other aspects of life as well.

 

Can “Priming” Your Brain help Your Game?

Does Neuropriming Really Work?

Neuroscience has made some great breakthroughs in the last few years in the study how we think and learn.  One of the most interesting is the practice of Neuropriming which can increase the rate at which the brain can develop neural pathways thus helping the brain learn new and different movement patterns.   Neuropriming, also called tDCS, or transcranial direct-current stimulation, can lead to accelerated learning and more meaningful practice sessions and ultimately make athletes better at what they do.

The theory behind Neuropriming is that electrical pulses trigger a neuroplastic state in which neurons in the motor cortex can more easily build and strengthen neural connections to muscles. The better connections improve both control of those muscles and the ability to fully utilize all the muscle fibers in them, effectively increasing strength.

To enhance neuropriming San Francisco, CA. based company Halo Neuroscience has designed headsets that contain soft electrodes, known as ‘primers’, which deliver neurostimulation to the brain.  And as Halo co-founder Daniel Chao describes, “Our headset looks like a set of regular headphones and that focuses on a piece of neuroanatomy.  The part of the brain we need to target is the motor cortex and, anatomically, that sits right above our ears.  It (the headsets) also helps with usability.  Teams can integrate our headsets into their existing workflow in such a way that they are almost doing nothing different.”

The Halo headsets are connected to electrodes which are moistened then attached to the scalp.  The athlete can adjust them amount of sensation they feel, but the amount of tingling sensation does not  effect how much neurostimulation they receive.  Recommended time wearing the headsets is 20 minutes during the most intense part of a workout.  Chao states that the positive effects of Halo, when applied correctly, last about an hour .

What does the user experience during that time? “You can absolutely feel it. I’d say a tingling feeling is the best way to describe it,” says pro cyclist and Halo user Andrew Talansky.  “You can ratchet up or down the intensity, which, by the way, doesn’t actually indicate how effective it is – say, a seven instead of a ten – it’s more just for personal comfort.”

Where can performance gains be made?  As Sports Illustrated writer Tom Taylor states, “As a rower, my own personal goal with Halo Sport was to shave seconds off my 5-kilometer time on an indoor rowing machine. My 5-kilometer indoor rowing time did drop by 10 seconds, to 17 minutes 49.1 seconds, over the course of the month I had the chance to use Halo, but my time should have dropped through training anyway. The question is how much of that time Halo Sport may have been responsible for. That problem, though, is shared by all training devices or techniques.”

But there are limitations as Chao points out, “It’s important for people to understand that motor cortex neurostimulation doesn’t help with the psychological aspects of athleticism,” he says. “It doesn’t directly affect focus, motivation, calmness or poise in the moment – none of the valuable aspects that psychologists work on.”

For athletes in general, the jury on Halo headphones is still out, primarily since they are such a new product.  Chao  points out that elite athletes with a very rigorous and disciplined workout regime will see the most results.   As with a lot of things, results will vary and you will have to try for yourself to see if they help with your game.

 

How Social Media Is Effecting Our Brains And Sports Focus

"Several Billion People Now Have Slot Machines In Their Pockets"

Did you know that every time you hit the red notifications button on Facebook, click to see how many Twitter followers you have or log on to check email is like playing the slot machines to see what numbers you will land on?  Or how about every time you get a new Facebook Like you get a little shot of dopamine to the pleasure center of your brain?  These are all impacts that the designers of social media apps intentionally designed into their sites with the sole purpose of getting your addicted to coming back again and again.

The purpose of this blog is to help athletes realize the impact social media is having on our brains, our focus and potentially success in our sport.  In this blog I want to take a small detour from the “X’s and O’s of sports psychology and talk more about the effects Social Media has on our focus and attention span.  Because in this very, very noisy world we live in with so many forces out there trying very hard to distract us and grab and hold our attention I think it is very important to understand how all of this information is effecting our focus.

Many studies have been performed to analyze the addictive effects social media is having on our minds.  Dr. Marc Lewis, a developmental neuroscientist at Radboud University, says addiction is another form of learning. “It’s the brain taking the shortest route to get what it wants, repercussions be damned.”

Lewis, a former addict himself, has concluded addiction is a disease, at least not in the way we think diseases like diabetes or cancer.  Rather, Lewis believes addiction is the brain’s rewards system channeling attention to just one single, attention grabbing stimulus.  In other words there is an almost uncontrollable itch that needs to be scratched.

And in today’s society for billions of people who find themselves more and more isolated in a very fragmented and polarized world that itch is the powerful need to be connected, to be followed, to be heard and to be liked by lots of other like-minded people.

This is where Social media has stepped in to fill that void.   On-line companies understand how powerful human emotions are and have become experts at playing on these emotions.  In fact, The software developers of these on-line tools have even gone as far as consulting with Las Vegas gambling experts to study and incorporate techniques and attachments on their sites that play off of human’s psychological weaknesses and tendencies.

For those individuals who have become “addicted” to their social media tools this behavior can come at a big cost, and most do not even realize it.  More specifically, for athletes this the time and attention spent focusing on followers, tweets, likes, shares, etc., it not only robs us of the valuable time we could other wise be spending honing our athletic craft, it steals away and diminishes our ability to remain focused on any one thought or subject for any substantial length of time and can ultimately rob of our potential to be the best athletes we can be.

Remember, the entire purpose of this blog is to help you focus on becoming a champion, no matter at what level of competition you are.

So in my next blog I will go into more specific detail about what exactly discuss several ways to get this social media monster under control and keep you focused on becoming a champion.

 

 

3 Drills To Boost Your Quiet Eye During Competition

Don't Let Your Eyes Wander Around

Whether you are wanting to improve your  free throw shooting in basketball or putting in golf science has proven that the quieter your eyes the better your chances of success.

To prove this researchers have place eye tracking equipment on both experts and novices and the findings consistently show that the experts or elite players focused their gaze on the ball itself rather than have their eyes wonder off in many different directions before action was taken.

Joan Vickers, PhD, a researcher and professor at the University of Calgary, is one of the world’s foremost authorities on sports vision. Her new book, Perception, Cognition, and Decision Training: The Quiet Eye in Action, explores this issue.  Her research has shown that elite athletes vision and eye focus is very different from average competitors.

Vickers demonstrated this in a study of free throw shooters.  Players were shown tape of their eye movements compared to elite players.  They were then given instruction on how to quiet their eyes when shooting free throws.  Their accuracy then improved 22% over a control group not given the instruction. (1)

The techniques given to quiet the eyes were:

  1. Focus on the basket when first stepping to the line.  Then let the eyes remain on one part of the basket even while doing other pre-shot routines.
  2. Visualize the shot going in.
  3. Remain focused on the part of the basket even while shooting.

The same basic techniques hold true in putting a golf ball, except the elite professionals directed the eye’s focus on the the back of the ball and then let their focus remain in place after the ball has been struck.  The three techniques to employ are:

1. After looking at the hole and your putting line one time keep eyes focused down on a very specific point on the ball, like an individual dimple.

2. The next technique is to take a deep breath to release tension, keep a light grip on the putter and to try a clear the mind of as many thoughts as possible before attempting the putt.

3. After striking the putt keep eye on where the ball was, not where it is going. This is probably the hardest to do, but research has shown the longer the eyes are fixed and not wandering around the better results might be.

While the quiet eye techniques have been proven repeatedly in research, the only way to have them pay off for you is to practice them over and over, preferably in game type situations so that they become part of your routine.  Then, as the great sports psychologist Dr. Bob Rotella says, “Let your routine become your wingman.”

This Technique Separates Great From Average Athletes

When training to become an elite athlete how many times have you stopped to think about training your eyes as well?  The answer is probably never.  However, many studies have shown that what separates truly great sports champions from near-great or average competitors is how quiet their eyes are during competition.

Competitors might not consider eye movements as important, but the research shows that our eyes tell us a lot about our focus, and ultimately our level of success.  The results are not 100% conclusive, but we can use information about what our eyes are looking at, and for how long, to show how effectively we are concentrating on a task in a pressure situation.

The technique is called “Quiet Eye Duration” and refers to the time of a player’s focus prior to executing a motor skill.   The duration of quiet eye “QE” differentiates elite from average competitors, with the great performers typically displaying longer times of quiet eye. This phenomenon has been proven not only in sports, but in many other areas of life as well.

As skill acquisition researcher Tim Buszard points out in his article entitled “Quiet Eye During Small Sided Basketball Games” when it comes to basketball, studies have shown that the longer the duration eyes were focused on the rim more shots went in.  Buszard points out that fellow researcher Andre Klostermann(1) discovered that the quiet eye phenomenon is even more pronounced in basketball when the situation is more stressful: defenders are present and the environment is constantly changing as opposed to warming-up or just shooting around.

Klostermann’s study had participants wear an eye tracker while performing both conditions (game conditions vs. shooting uncontested free throws) and the results were:

  • Quiet Eye duration was longer for successful than unsuccessful shots regardless of participant skill and was most apparent when defenders were present.
  • Successful shot making was also characterized by quicker onset of Quiet Eye and a later finish to Quiet Eye (i.e., participants looked at the hoop earlier and for longer).

Outside of the sports world, one study by Canadian researchers (2) showed that when 1st year surgery students were given Quiet Eye training their surgery knot tying skills (speed and precision) were improved over students who did not receive QE training.  And this was even more pronounced when put under more stressful conditions like students being told their performance would be evaluated and ranked with other students, as opposed to being told it was just for practice.

In my next blog post will dive deeper into ways to increase and improve “Quiet Eye” doing such things as putting or hitting a baseball.

Reference

(1)Klostermann, A., Panchuk, D., & Farrow, D. (2017). Perception-action coupling in complex game play: Exploring the quiet eye in contested basketball jump shots. Journal of sports sciences, 1-7.
(2)From Causer, J., Vickers, J. N., Snelgrove, R., Arsenault, G., & Harvey, A. (2014). Performing under pressure: Quiet eye training improves surgical knot-tying performance. Surgery, 156(5), 1089-1096.