Neurofeedback and Optimal Sports Performance
Neurofeedback makes it possible for athletes to gain the competitive edge on the sports field without having to spend more hours practicing. By identifying areas of the brain pertinent for performance enhancement and improving their functioning, behaviors can be altered; athletic deficits, areas of weakness, and even extraneous distractions can be eliminated from the game. “Different sports place different demands on the brain” (Hammond, 2007). As such, treatment is tailored to the specific needs of the athlete based on a comprehensive evaluation. Treatment has been found to be effective in many different sports despite the position played by the athlete.
In addition to alleviating psychological symptoms (e.g., anxiety, depression) and sports related injuries (e.g., concussions, migraines, muscle tension) that can interfere with sports performance, neurofeedback training can improve various areas necessary for optimal performance: Relaxation, Focus, Agility and Timing (Winning with Sports, 2008), as well as maintaining and/or enhancing Motivation (Wilson, Peper, & Moss, 2006). Pressure to perform can be intrinsic or extrinsic, but whatever the cause, pressure can have damaging effects if the athlete is unable to effectively manage it. Unexpected mistakes as a result of unmanaged pressure can be costly during competition for the athlete or the team as a whole (Albright, 2010). With training, an athlete can become more comfortable performing in high pressure situations without buckling or choking (Winning with Sports, 2008). This training becomes essential especially for those athletes in specialty positions/sports. Training to improve focus helps an athlete eliminate distractions from opponents, the crowd, and/or self-talk that can inhibit optimal performance. Many times athletes can be their own worst enemy; focusing on past failures removes the athlete’s confidence, setting them up to fail as long as they remain unfocused and self-criticizing (Wilson et al., 2006; Winning with Sports, 2008). “Neurofeedback tries to block this downward spiral of self-destructive doubting. When it works, it helps the player find ‘the zone’ and stay in it” (Max, n.d.). Finally, agility and timing also become an important factor for optimal performance (Winning with Sports, 2008). An athlete already has the skill to compete in his/her chosen sport while meeting the demands of his/her position, but he/she needs to fine tune their skills in order to be effective on a consistent basis. Split-second decisions become easier through neurofeedback training, and the athlete becomes better able to perform as the movements become automatic.
Sports psychologists have been around for many years, helping athletes through techniques such as visualization, hypnosis, and imagery. However, neurofeedback goes a step further by retraining the brain for optimal performance (Albright, 2010). Many sports teams around the world are beginning to turn to neurofeedback in order to become more successful on the playing field. In 2006, the Italian soccer team received neurofeedback training and when they won the World Cup, they attributed their win to that very training (Wilson et al., 2006). The Canadian free ski team also used neurofeedback to reach peak performance levels in the 2010 winter Olympics (Starkman, 2009), while the Vancouver Canucks turned to the same training in their race for the Stanley Cup in 2011 (Vancouver Canucks, 2011). In addition to the successful Italian soccer team and Canadian skiers and hockey players, the tennis champion, Mary Pierce, and Olympic gold medalist skier, Hermann Maier have spoken in support of neurofeedback training (Max, n.d.).
Neurofeedback is helping athletes to gain the competitive edge over their opponents, allowing athletes to reach their optimal mental and physical state necessary to be successful on the field. Neurofeedback training is an investment in their career- in themselves.