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Neurofeedback and Sports Performance

Updated: Apr 17

This article was written by our trainer Anna Jusek

Neurofeedback training (NFT) has been popular in the sports arena with an array of athlete’s using it during or at the pinnacle of their career:

• Andrea Dovizioso: World champion 2004

• Olivier Jean: Gold medal Olympics 2010

• Manuel Osborne – Paradis: 11 world cup podiums

• Lucas Di Grassi – Formula E world champion

• Ferrari driver academy

• Chris Kaman – NBA player

• Tobias Harris – Basketball player NBA

• Italian football team before their 2006 world cup win

• Additional football clubs: Real Madrid, Chelsea and Liverpool

• Gabriella Papadakis – Figure skating Olympic gold

EEG biomarkers associated with high sports performance

Several studies have elucidated NFT’s efficacy in improving sports performance from as early as 1991. Landers et al [1] trained 2 groups of novice archers; the first group was trained to reduce cortical activity on the left side of the brain. The left side of the brain is associated with verbal/analytical skills and is less active in expert archers according to psychomotor efficiency training. Psychomotor learning concerns the relationship between cognitive functions and physical movement. In the early stages of acquiring a new psychomotor skill, people will begin at the cognitive stage wherein movement is slow and choppy as they develop control. The psychomotor efficiency postulates that the suppression of task-irrelevant processes and enhancement of task-relevant processes are associated with superior cognitive-motor processing concerning expertise [2]. The second group in Landers’s cohort was trained to reduce activity in the visuospatial right side of the brain. This side is observed to be highly active in experts. The training results demonstrated that archery performance increased within the first group and decreased in the second group post training.

More recent research from Chang and colleagues [3] (2017) observed that the best air pistol performances are preceded by enhanced SMR power (12-15Hz), whereas poor performances are usually preceded by attenuated SMR power. SMR (sensory motor rhythm) is involved in motor activity and anxiety. Whereas Andy Cook and Chris Rain [4] (2014) investigated what EEG activity precedes holed and missed pots in pros and beginners. Their results demonstrated that expert golfers displayed a far greater reduction in high alpha power (8-12Hz). Holed puts were characterised by preceding lower alpha - Alpha is involved in arousal level and conscious attention devoted to a task [5]. A further wave form of interest in NFT for sports performance is theta (4-8Hz). Theta is associated with encoding and processing information as well as memory retrieval, this will be discussed in more detail further on.

How does Neurofeedback improve sports performance?

There are several reasons as to why neurofeedback has been deemed favourable, one of which is that it enhances several traits that are associated with better sports performance.

Factors observed to improve sports performance:

1. The ability to sustain focus

2. Remaining calm under stress

3. Visualisation techniques

4. Improved motor control

1. The ability to remain focused

Focus is vital in sports performance as it allows athletes to attend to cues. The ability to focus relies on several factors; being able to recognise when you’re off task, regrouping any interrupting thoughts/feelings, and refocusing your attention. Neurofeedback’s efficacy in supporting ADHD is well researched. Bandmeyer and Delorme [20] 2020 used neurofeedback to increase frontal-midline theta power during mindful meditation. They identified that increased focus produced fast reaction times, which is an additional factor significant to sports performance.

Concomitantly Maszczyk et al. [21] 2020 observed that NFT training reduced the reaction time in judo athletes, as the NFT taught them how to influence and improve their concentration. Whereas the Canadian speed skating national team improved their reaction time after 4-5 weeks of NFT in preparation for the Vancouver Olympic Games [24].

Raymond and colleagues [6] suggest that increased focus improves reaction time by enabling athletes to get into the zone faster after they observed that alpha/theta neurofeedback improved the subscale “timing” in their dance performers. The performers were rated by judges blinded to the experimental groups.

2. Remaining calm - emotional regulation

For the 2010 Olympics, 15 elite athletes underwent NFT to help them optimise stress management through increasing self-awareness and self-regulation. Athletes and their coaches reported that the NFT intervention supported the athletes in managing their stress levels and was an influential factor in their improved performance [25].

So, why did stress management enhance their sports performance? The arousal-performance relationship looks at how changes in arousal level can affect performance either negatively or positively, in addition to which specific factors affect this relationship. Theories attempting to explain how arousal impacts performance include the: Inverted-U Hypothesis, Individualised Zones of Optimal Functioning and the Catastrophe Model. For example, the inverted-U hypothesis states that low arousal equates to low-performance levels, but as arousal level rises, so does performance - up to an optimal point where the athlete experiences their best performance. However, further increases in arousal past this optimal point cause a gradual decrease in performance. The general idea of the inverted-U hypothesis is consistent with athlete’s experiences of being under-aroused, at an optimal arousal level or over-aroused (Note that while the U-graph is a symmetrical curve, it is unlikely that optimal arousal always occurs at the midpoint of the arousal continuum).

One reason for poor performance is that too much arousal and state anxiety cause the narrowing of a person’s attentional field. This makes tasks which require a broad-external focus more difficult. For example, if a football player’s attentional field is too narrow, they are less likely to notice a teammate in their peripheral vision that they could pass the ball to or see an opponent coming in from the side. Furthermore, research has reported that individuals with low self-esteem or high levels of trait anxiety, experience more athletic injuries or lose more time as a result of their injuries [26,27]. The first reason once again concerns disrupted peripheral attention, which can result in athletes not being able to see their opponents and brace themselves, avoid a tackle or avoid getting injured. Secondly, stress leads to increased muscle tension that diminishes coordination. Thirdly, it is also suggested that athletes experiencing a heightened level of state anxiety, are more likely to become distracted or have irrelevant thoughts.

Neurofeedback enhances an individual’s ability to self-regulate their emotional state and evoke calmness. For example, alpha training on the right hemisphere of the sensory cortex can produce calmness as the alpha state is linked to alert relaxation. Alpha training is used for pain relief, reducing stress and anxiety and improving memory, mental performance and sleep [28]. Additionally, 10Hz alpha is used for deep muscle relaxation and heart rate. Domingos et al. [29] 2021 identified that alpha training can improve heart rate variability in athletes who received NFT three times weekly for four weeks. To view NFTs efficacy in ameliorating stress within clinical environments, select this link.

3. Imagery

The practice of imagery, also known as visualisation, for sporting events can enhance confidence, motivation, skill learning and arousal control. Numerous studies support the use of imagery in sports contexts, especially its use for learning and performing motor skills. These studies have been conducted across different levels of ability and in varied sports such as basketball, football, kayaking, track and field, swimming, karate, downhill and cross-country skiing, volleyball, tennis and golf.

Motivational imagery involves visualising specific goals, e.g., winning a competition, beating a particular opponent or holding a trophy. Research has reported that imagery can help athletes set specific goals and then adhere to the training to attain them. Cognitive imagery focuses on the performance of specific motor skills. This type of imagery is often used to familiarise oneself with how a particular movement feels and improve skill level. Raymond et al. [6] propose that the relaxed NFT-induced theta over alpha state could facilitate performance-enhancing imagery. They suggest that the improved performance in their dancers after alpha/theta training is due to enhanced use of guided imagery while they were in the theta over alpha state.

Outside of sports, NFT-facilitated motor imagery training (motor imagery is the mental representation of action without executing it) is utilised in the medical field, for example, in enhancing recovery in stroke patients. Neurofeedback made it easier for patients to train daily for four weeks, after which there was improved upper limb motor function in all three patients and increased white matter integrity in the patient that exhibited the most significant functional change [30]. Neurofeedback training is currently being researched in the field of brain-computer interfaces due to its promise of increasing motor imagery [23,31]. BCI research involves establishing control over external devices such as robotic limbs. One example comprises of Zhou and the team, who observed that the up-regulation of alpha relative power via NFT improved the performance of motor imagery BCI.

4. Improved motor control

NFT for the treatment of severe equilibrium difficulties and its fast results provide encouraging evidence for the potential use of neurofeedback to improve balance within athletes that compete in Olympic gymnastics, skiing, ice skating, hockey, skateboarding, ballet, and even tennis, martial arts, basketball, football and baseball.

Hammond's [32] 2005 research exhibited the success of biofeedback in four patients who suffered from equilibrium problems. The first two patients (aged 32 and 50) suffered with their balance after moderate head injury (the first was a result of a car accident and the latter due to an accident during mountain climbing). The other two patients (45 and 46 years old) developed equilibrium problems following a stroke. After a series of 8-10 treatments, there was an observed improvement in the equilibrium capabilities of all four patients.

A further case study of a 6-year-old boy who experienced moderate brain injury at one and was left unable to run; showcased that after three neuropathic treatments, he could run almost normally. In the case of an 8-year-old child with developmental delay and severe attentional difficulties; he was unable to ride a bike without falling off despite undergoing many therapist-led treatments for two years.

After only four NFT treatments in accordance with Hammond's balance protocol, he began riding bikes without the use of a long-distance auxiliary and without falling. At the end of the treatment, he could ride a bike without any effort. His brain's ability to maintain equilibrium had improved. Recently, Norouzi and Vaemousavi [19] have added to this body of research by observing that SMR-NFT in Iranian veterans with spinal cord injuries improved balance as well as reaction time. While neurofeedback treatments for ADHD require a series of 40-50 sessions, neurofeedback to treat equilibrium problems usually requires only 8-10 sessions. Patients with equilibrium problems usually feel improvement after two sessions.



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4. Look

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