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

WIND THE clock forward a dozen years. More than 500 individuals in the U.S. and Canada are now certified neurofeedback practitioners, according to the Biofeedback Institute of America. To be fair, much of the research—and the current bulk of its application—in brain-wave control over the last 30 years has been targeted toward reducing or eradicating seizures in epileptics, treating attention-deficit disorder, countering depression, assisting patients who have suffered loss of brain function after a head injury, and administering other types of therapy. But a handful of psychologists have continued to focus on neurofeedback's potential to enhance athletic performance.

Here, in a very small nutshell, is how it works. During a 24-hour period, your brain oscillates through four general categories of electrical activity, from sleep to extreme alertness—delta, theta, alpha, and beta, respectively (see "Altered States"). Throughout the cycle, the brain taps several frequencies at once, with more dominant patterns rising and falling depending on the activity. The infamous "zone" that athletes enter when they're at the top of their game, explains Chartier, is created when a highly desirable combination of particular frequencies kicks in at just the right time—an "exquisite chaos" of brain activity that allows both linear problem-solving and conceptual and spatial awareness to function simultaneously. The trick is to understand which frequencies need to be turned up or turned down, since patterns vary from individual to individual, and to strengthen the athlete's ability to access these frequencies. "We've discovered that there are certain states of consciousness associated with peak performance," says Chartier. "Basically, the zone is definable in EEG terms. And if we know there is a place that corresponds to improved performance, we ask, how do you get there?"

In his Raleigh clinic, Chartier annually works with about half a dozen athletes to achieve that elusive brain-wave blend. It's a small but growing percentage of his mostly clinical practice, and it illustrates a trend that's mirrored elsewhere in the country. At the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, for example, trainers are now experimenting with a machine called a Peak Achievement Trainer (PAT), which uses a desktop computer to track and steer them toward more desirable, performance-enhancing brain-wave frequencies. In short, while we've got the science behind muscular and nutritional training wired, psychological training is really just beginning to blossom. And neurofeedback may be the most exciting athletic development since weight training.


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