The Mental Edge

Your diet's dialed, your body's buff. Now plug in to the frontier of athletic performance—brain-wave biofeedback. It could revolutionize your game.

Apr 1, 2000
Outside Magazine

IT WAS JUST past dawn on a mid-March Wednesday morning—cool and overcast, comfortable cycling weather. Ultradistance racer Cathy Busby was bike-commuting to work from her home in Holly Springs, North Carolina, part of her routine training for the 3,000-mile Race Across America. The previous summer, she had won the women's qualifier in Capron, Illinois, and was now considered afavorite to win the grueling cross-country road race coming up in June. But her aspirations for a Race Across America title fell hard that day. A pickup truck pulled out from an intersection, broadsided Busby, and left her crumpled by the side of the road with seven broken bones, including one in her right hand, both elbows, and a tibia shattered so severely that it required a metal plate and five screws to put it back together.

Three months later, Busby was back on her bike, spinning through easy miles. But while she was rebounding relatively quickly from her physical injuries, the psychological damage left by the accident still plagued her. "Any time I came up to an intersection, I'd wait for all the cars to go through before I went," says Busby. "I stopped biking to work. My times on training rides were way down. I could feel all this anger building up. On one ride, I had a meltdown—I was screaming at everyone and everything because I was so frustrated."

The cyclist turned to Dan Chartier, a psychologist in Raleigh, North Carolina. Chartier proposed an experimental procedure called neurofeedback, a type of biofeedback that makes "automatic" functions like brain-wave levels perceptible, and therefore controllable. Chartier pasted sensors to Busby's scalp and then connected her to an electroencephalograph (neurofeedback is sometimes called brain-wave or EEG biofeedback) to monitor her brain waves. Per Chartier's instructions, the cyclist coaxed herself through various states of relaxation. When she achieved the desired brain-wave frequency, a tone sounded from the machine. The more she practiced, the easier it became to make the sound. After about three weeks of once-a-week sessions in the lab she noticed a dramatic improvement in her riding. "I felt a lot more confident," recalls Busby, who went on to win the elite ultradistance New York 24-Hour Challenge just six months after her accident and, the following year, set a women's record for the fastest time across North Carolina, another ultradistance benchmark. "And my times on the circuits I rode started dropping. I couldn't physiologically explain the improvement I was seeing."

This was 1988, and while Busby may not have known it at the time, she was among the pioneers of peak-performance neurofeedback. "It was totally experimental," says Chartier. "But, athletically speaking, Cathy was a real success story. For someone who was already at her level, lifting her higher was pretty damn exciting."


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