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

THE EFFECT OF the mind on physical activity is profound. When it comes to peak performance, sports psychologists are learning that during stressful activity or competition, many athletes tend to hyperfocus. "They think too much," says Vietta Wilson, a professor of kinesiology and health science at Toronto's York University who has studied the brain-wave patterns of Olympians and other athletes for more than 20 years. "The chemistry of exertion changes the speed of decision making. You start questioning and it takes you off target. Some people can come right back to what they are supposed to do. Other people start looking at consequences and tighten up in the muscles." The result: rushing and poor decisions.

Here's where neurofeedback and EEG monitors prove invaluable. They provide an instrument that objectively measures brain waves and signals when an athlete reaches a relaxed yet focused state—more alpha waves, fewer high-frequency beta waves. This is particularly important because it's virtually impossible to recognize the subtle physiological differences in various states of relaxation without the appropriate monitoring device. A fish that's in water, the saying goes, doesn't know it's in water.

This became clear in 1991, when Dan Landers, a professor of exercise science at Arizona State University, conducted a neurofeedback/peak-performance study with a group of elite archers (among the few types of athletes who can pursue their sport with a head full of wires). When one is preparing to release an arrow, beta waves permeate the brain's left hemisphere. The mind is chattering away: "Aim the arrow, draw the bow, there's a plane flying over my head..." Then, just before release, alpha waves wash over the left hemisphere, stilling the brain and allowing fluid, focused execution. Landers divided his subjects into three groups: One received no neurofeedback training; one received neurofeedback training designed to enhance alpha patterns in the left side of the brain; and the third group was put through a sham protocol. "Those who got the correct biofeedback showed significant improvement," says Landers. "Their shots moved from the outer edge of the nine ring to the inner. For archers, that's a meaningful change." Those who received no training improved only slightly, and the group receiving the bogus training got worse. Comparable studies involving karate, golf putting, and free-throw shooting have all charted similar results.

Back in 1996, climber Mark Twight was turned on to brain-wave training by another climbing friend. He soon found himself conducting his own brain-wave training with a Sportslink, a Walkman-size device that emits light and sound calibrated to specific brain-wave frequencies. On a recent trip to Mount McKinley, Twight immersed himself in daily 40-minute Sportslink sessions while at base camp; he went on to set a speed record (60 hours round-trip, beating the previous record of seven days) up Czech Direct, widely believed to be the mountain's most difficult route. "I hate to use the word 'trick,' " says Twight. "But that's what I'm doing. When I'm in the mountains, I sometimes have moments of great doubt. Honestly, when you do the kinds of routes I do, you're more often defeated psychologically than physically. The [brain-wave] training helps me turn on confidence and optimism when necessary."

Few neurofeedback experts will tell you that it's possible to train yourself to automatically enter the zone every time you drive for a layup or attempt to dyno the crux of a 5.11 climb, but most agree you can increase your odds of success. Brain-wave training helps individuals open the aperture of their attention, developing what Les Fehmi, a psychologist in Princeton, New Jersey, calls attentional flexibility. "It's where you're able to narrow your focus for an event that demands it," says Fehmi, who works with athletes on peak performance, "but you don't live there."

So will your next performance breakthrough be as simple as sitting in a chair and patching into a machine? Probably not. You'll need to connect visualization techniques and proper brain-wave frequencies. Just ask Erik Cook, a springboard diver on the U.S. National Team. In 1999 Cook fractured his back on a practice dive. During his recovery, he spent several weeks going through dozens of sessions of visualization with a Peak Achievement Trainer. "When I got back on the board, it was like I didn't miss a beat," says Cook, now 23. "I've been injured before and I know my personal timetable. This time it took three weeks to come back instead of three months."

Twight, by comparison, imagines himself in stressful climbing situations—say, hanging from ice axes a thousand feet off the deck and suddenly getting bombarded by rockfall. He then pictures himself reacting calmly and getting himself out of danger, rather than panicking and making matters worse. "A fear-arousing situation should be the cue to relaxation," he says.

To be sure, most neurofeedback training—and the best—takes place in clinics or training centers that provide access to both equipment and expertise. But clinic time comes at a price. Peak-performance training generally involves ten to 20 50-minute sessions, costing anywhere from $50 to $150 each. If you visit Chartier, he'll recommend a minimum of ten sessions at $120 each.

But do-it-yourselfers are proliferating, as is in-home training equipment (see "Check Your Head," page 132). Among these are two distinct systems. Twight's Sportslink, to provide an example of one system, nudges his brain waves toward specific frequencies by exposing him to preset light and sound programs that help reinforce positive attitude, help the body relax to recover from a hard workout, and other functions. The other system centers around EEG monitoring devices that help individuals recognize certain states of consciousness associated with particular dominant brain-wave frequencies, thus helping them learn how to control those frequencies. Exhibit A for this system is the BrainMaster (step aside, Thighmaster), which is not much bigger than a modem, interfaces with your home computer, and comes complete with instructional videos.

Yet as sophisticated as these machines are, the next generation of neurofeedback training is already on the horizon. In April at his clinic, Chartier plans to introduce his clients to new monitoring hardware and software that he helped develop that will allow neurofeedback practitioners to chart multiple brain frequencies simultaneously. "When we can link frequencies, we'll be able to create an entire performance map," says Chartier. "It's like this: Where we've been able to listen to individual instruments, we'll now be able to listen to the orchestra. And we'll be able to teach the brain to play the whole symphony."   

Helena, Montana, resident Jim Robbins is the author of A Symphony in the Brain: The Evolution of the New Brain Wave Biofeedback.


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