As athletes and coaches strive to find that mental edge that is so needed in order to be successful in elite sport, new technologies and therapies are being explored as a means of performance enhancement. Getting into an ideal mental state and correct focus and attention is the goal of all athletes form Olympic to amateur level. The goal of neurofeedback, is to train the brain so that such mental states are reached more easily and at will, and has been used from tennis players such as Mary Pierce, to the Italian soccer team to the Chinese 2008 Olympic athletes to name a few.

Concentration and focus are skills just like throwing a ball or swimming across a pool, and like these skills, need to be taught and practiced. Athletes need to know what to attend to and focus on, but equally important is ‘how to’ attend. Neurofeedback is used to teach athletes intention, focusing, imagery enhancement as well as when to let-go and not to attend.

There are different types of brain waves (measured as electrical impulses) from slow to fast and each is associated with a different mental state and task. Neurofeedback uses EEG (electroencephalogram) technology to train up brain wave frequencies that are associated with peak performance and focus and train down those associated with anxiety and excessive self-talk – essentially helping athletes to enter a flow state or to be in the ‘zone’.

Types of brain waves and what mental state they are associated with:

Theta – unfocused, sleepiness, wandering mind
Alpha – associated with meditative states, relaxed open awareness
Sensory Motor Rhythm – associated with ‘zone’ like focus
Beta – external awareness, taking action (but also associated with anxiety and excess of self talk or rumination)

Research has found that a state of relaxed open awareness (alpha and SMR) is often associated with peak performance. The core tenet of neurofeedback is that, with training, the underlying processes that result in brain waves can be modified, thereby improving performance and functioning.

Together with neurofeedback, biofeedback can be used to help athletes control arousal levels, muscle tension, heart rate and breathing – all essential to performance.

Interestingly neuro-biofeedback has also been used successfully with children with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity disorder and people with clinical disorders such depression and anxiety. Businesspeople and other professionals wanting to use and apply the mental skills of elite athletes such as concentration and focus to help them perform optimally in all areas of life will also benefit from neuro-biofeedback.

For more information please contact Kirsten van Heerden.

Kirsten is a psychologist who works with individual athletes and teams from many different sports, from school to recreational through to Olympic level. She was a member of the South African swimming team for 13 years and knows first hand the pressures and demands of elite level sport, and the impact of psychological factors on performance.

By Kirsten van Heerden

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