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.

Jim Robbins

Heading out the door? Read this article on the new Outside+ app available now on iOS devices for members! Download the app.



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.”




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.




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.


Check Your Head

From sophisticated (and expensive) to simple (and not so expensive), brain-wave training instruments for the home

If you’re feeling headstrong about peak performance and want to try brain-wave training on your own, consider the following in-home options (or see the list of neurofeedback clinics).

Sure, it’s the price of a titanium mountain bike, but you may get more bang for your buck out of a Peak Achievement Trainer ($2,695; Compatible with most computers, the PAT includes software, a sensor headband, an instructional video, a nine-lesson manual, and audiotapes. The display is simple: A line shrinks and an audio signal changes pitch when you reach the zone.

One of the more popular in-home units is the BrainMaster 2E ($975; It includes a brain-wave amplifier, sensors, and software for a personal computer. Power up and play a game ($350 extra for the software) that features a flight down the Grand Canyon. Maintain the target brain-wave frequency and you won’t crash.

The E2 EEG Brainwave Trainer ($725; is a new, self-contained, book-size device that allows a range of different frequency programs. Rewards vary from chirps to music.

Psychologist Les Fehmi’s Open Focus tapes ($50; are among the least expensive portals into DIY brain-wave training. The tapes contain a series of suggested visualizations designed to drop the brain into a relaxed state.

The Sportslink ($295; [email protected]) is not a biofeedback device, but rather an “audiovisual learning and relaxation system.” Now in English: Instead of teaching you how to access different brain-wave states on your own, this unit uses flashing lights inside special goggles that nudge the electrical frequency of your brain higher or lower, depending on the chosen program.

Altered States

Getting a handle on all that electrical activity in your head isn’t as mind-boggling as you might think. Psychologists reference four categories of brain waves, each defined by a different range of frequencies. Here’s the breakdown, in hertz:

* Delta (0–4 Hz). You’re basically unconscious—either sleeping or, God forbid, comatose.

* Theta (4–8 Hz). The semiconscious realm between sleeping and waking—you’re dozing, but not fully asleep. During theta activity, you access stored images of peak performance (like dunking over your buddy during a pickup hoops game).

* Alpha (8–13 Hz). Your “idle” brain state. At the low end, you’re daydreaming; at the high end, in a state of relaxed alertness. The optimum range for most conscious activity is between 8/9 Hz and 15/16Hz.

* Beta (13–21 Hz). Your state of greatest alertness. The lower end of the range corresponds to linear thinking and problem solving. At the high end of the range, however, you’ve really redlined your anxiety, and your body may tense up and become difficult to control.

Getting Help

True, peak-performance neurofeedback clinics aren’t quite as prolific as Starbucks—yet. While we wait for the groundswell, you can find professional brain-wave training at these established facilities:

The ADD Centre
50 Village Centre Place

Mississauga, Ontario, Canada
L4Z 1V9

Austin Biofeedback Center
3624 N. Hills Dr., Suite B-205

Austin, TX 78731

Biofeedback Solutions

1800 12th Avenue NE, Suite 210-W

Bellvue, WA 98004


BrainMaster Technologies, Inc.

24490 Broadway Avenue
Oakwood Village, OH 44146


EEG Spectrum International, Inc.
16500 Ventura Blvd., Suite 418

Encino, CA 91436


Life Quality Resources
8404-B Glenwood Ave.

Raleigh, NC 27612

Neuro Health Center
2132 N. Nevada Ave.

Colorado Springs, CO 80907


Neurofeedback Professional Center
11024 N. 28th Dr., Suite 200

Phoenix, AZ 85029


promo logo