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Peak Performance for Atheletes

Peak performance is primarily mental. EEG biofeedback trains the mind to be calm and focused.

by John Putman, M.A., M.S., MFT

Although many world class athletes say that athletic performance is predominately mental, the vast majority of athletic programs at our colleges and schools do not emphasis any sort of mental fitness training. We have all heard performers describe states of peak athletic prowess in such terms as “being in the flow” or “time having slowed down”. Fran Tarkenton, the former quarterback for the Minnesota Vikings, used to describe how everyone would appear to “move in slow motion” when he would drop back to throw a pass –as if he had all the time in the world. These descriptions of peak performance clearly reflect states that are within the mental domain.

The Martial Arts have always recognized the connection between the psyche and the physical. As such, practitioners and teachers of the martial arts place great emphasis on strengthening this relationship as a critical part of their training. Physical agility, accuracy and endurance are predicated on discipline and focus. Top athletes strive for an “energetically economic” (or ‘ergonomic’) performance through the maximizing of a sense of “oneness” with the body. Achieving such oneness involves mastery over the nervous system through the development and refining of inner awareness. Although exercises such as meditation can certainly take a person part of the way there, modern technology allows for the development of a much more panoramic inner awareness through something called biofeedback.

Biofeedback can be thought of as a window on the inner workings of brain and body which serves to complete the mental to physical awareness loop. Biofeedback essentially involves the measurement of a certain aspect of physiological functioning which is ordinarily beyond the person’s awareness, and then mapping it into a video display for easy observation. In bringing the unobserved into the realm of the observed, a person is able to alter physiological functioning. Peak performance training involves altering brainwave activity, or the EEG (electroencephalogram). Research has shown that altering the brainwave activity can have very beneficial effects on a person’s ability to focus and maintain attention. In addition EEG biofeedback can improve mood disorders, such as anxiety and depression, as well as sleep –all of which can affect the quality of athletic performance. Although a certain amount of arousal is necessary to perform optimally, every athlete, singer or dancer knows that anxiety can cripple any performance. In order to understand this more fully, one has to realize that anxiety is a survival trait that evolved into existence because it was conducive to the preservation of the human species. Anxiety serves as the first line of defense against threats to survival. It is, essentially, the sentry for the “fight or flight” system -- in that it is fear that drives an organism (human or otherwise) to either fight or flee. Anxiety compels us to anticipate the immediate future. However, that which has served so well in protecting and preserving the human species, can become a major liability in the arena of performance or competition. This is because a performer has to be totally present “in the moment”. Anxious persons are forever anticipating the NEXT moment and, consequently, lose their connection with the present. The results can be catastrophic …or at the very least embarrassing. “Choking”, “crashing” or “forgetting one’s lines” are all examples of the lack of focus that can result from runaway anxiety.

EEG biofeedback is not a new technique. It has been used for nearly 40 years. Clinical use of brainwave training began in the late sixties after research psychologist M. Barry Sterman of UCLA found that operant conditioning of the EEG activity was very effective in resolving seizure disorders. Over the past several years EEG training has found application in treating an ever widening array of problems and disorders. One of the most well researched applications of EEG biofeedback is for the remediation of attention deficits (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, ADHD), related behavioral disorders, and specific learning disabilities.

EEG biofeedback’s primary purpose in peak performance is to reduce anxiety; increase attention and focus; normalize arousal levels; reduce misdirected muscular energy expenditure; and improve the body’s normal circadian cycles –particularly with regard to sleep. In addition to the physiological normalization, there are psychological benefits as well. Anyone who has ever studied stress management knows about the powerfully counterproductive effect of something called “negative self talk”. Persons with self esteem issues tend to lacerate themselves whenever they make a mistake. “Perfectionists” tend to punish themselves in this way and in doing so, virtually eliminate any chance of even approaching perfection. Nothing destroys focus and guarantees failure more effectively than beating yourself up in mid-performance. In our experience, EEG biofeedback has been shown to boost a person’s sense of self worth due, in part, to the gaining of mastery over one’s own central nervous system. In addition, an individual learns how to hold a narrow focus and at the same time maintain a widened awareness –a necessary precondition for the peak experience.

High achievers in any field are often described as having an inner bearing characterized by confidence, calm and an ability to focus under pressure. Such qualities have physiological manifestations that can be trained and refined. Thus, in order for athletes to maximize their potential, a training regimen must include exercises that improve the brain’s regulatory efficiency. EEG biofeedback offers such an exercise.

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© Copyright 2004, Gary Ames
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