Though previously applied in more clinical contexts, recent years have seen an increase in popularity for Neurofeedback training in the world of professional sport. Athletes and coaches constantly strive to create the most optimal conditions, both mentally and physically, in order to triumph in a highly competitive and pressure-filled environment.
Rather than attempting to detect changes in neural activity (as per the clinical application), Neurofeedback training, when applied to areas of peak performance, aims to detect the optimal levels of cortical activity, and harness them for future success. As this optimal state is reinforced via operant conditioning, the training has been implicated in the acquisition and mastery of a wide range of physical and cognitive skills, and reducing the time taken to turn a novice individual into an elite performer.
The self-regulation techniques involved in Neurofeedback training, such as increasing attention and motivation, concentration, and greater autonomic control, all represent powerful tools for expert performance in elite athletes. Research involving expert marksmen, golfers and archers have all posited that by positively reinforcing individuals for reaching optimal levels of cortical activity, practitioners are able to help athletes quiet their mind, and regulate their mental and emotional environment and concentrate more thoroughly – all of which reflect both indispensable tools for daily life, and states highly conducive to peak athletic performance.
For instance, a range of studies have found that, in the preparatory phase preceding a particularly focused action, such as a marksman firing a shot or during a board-break in karate, successful increase in EEG alpha activity (8-12Hz) in the left temporal lobe was correlated with better performance. The overarching consensus is that by increasing this frequency in the left hemisphere, cortical activity in this area was reduced, allowing the visuospatial processes of the right hemisphere to take over, resulting in fewer errors and superior outcomes.
Another important factor governing the success of an elite sportsperson is their ability to recover following an injury – as such, the positive cognitive outcomes associated with NF training have become a valuable rehabilitative tool. In the weeks and months following an injury such as a concussion (an extremely common sports-related injury), the brain is vulnerable to a range of negative physiological and psychological outcomes that can impact performance in both the short and long term. By reducing stress and anxiety, players are able to engage with their own recovery and minimise the the negative outcomes of an injury, ultimately leading to a faster recovery and a more successful return to form, restoring their confidence in the aftermath of a setback.
College golfers in the USA participated in a study exploring how neurofeedback can improve performance. Sherlin and colleagues (2015) took baseline measurements of the golfers and divided them into groups that either received neurofeedback training or no neurofeedback training. After the neurofeedback training it was observed that the golfers performed better in putting (less putts per round and less ‘three-putts’ per round), and in ball striking statistics (higher number of ‘greens in regulation’).
Sixteen pre-elite golfers participated in a study to see if neurofeedback could help their performance in putting. Cheng and colleagues (2015) designed a study to determine a putting distance where the participant could make a minimum of 50% of their putts. They were then fitted with a Lycra electrode cap and practised putting for ten minutes before they underwent a resting EEG recording. Participants then hit 40 putts spread over four trials while EEGs were recorded. Scores were calculated based on the distance from the edge of the ball to the edge of the hole (e.g., a putt that finished in the hole was scored as 0). After this pre-test that lasted around two hours the participants were split into groups where one group were scheduled to go through eight sessions of neurofeedback training while the other group did not receive any training. Compared to the control group, the golfers that received neurofeedback performed better in the putting tasks. Additionally, the golfers that received the sensorimotor rhythm (SMR) neurofeedback training showed an enhanced SMR activity 1.5 seconds before they made a putt and this lead to improved putting performance.
Most athletes understand that at the highest level of sporting competition the difference between winning and losing can be the result of the smallest element. It is no surprise that sporting professionals in pursuit of glory are looking for any possible edge so that they can improve their performance. Park, Fairweather, and Donaldson (2015) looked at previous studies on neuroimaging and neurofeedback and how these techniques have been used by athletes to improve sporting performance. Although the research into the link between sporting performance and neurofeedback is relatively new, the link between brain waves and sporting performance can shed some light on professional athletes. This study looked at alpha rhythms and its link with expert performance as well as other developments in neuroscience that have benefits for highly performing athletes.
Mierau, Hulsdunker, and Struder (2015) looked at the relationship between sports performance and cortical oscillations (to do with brain activity). Their research aimed at using a real world setting in order to make their work as applicable as possible. Cortical oscillations are measured using an electroencephalography (EEG) and activity in different brain waves (e.g., alpha, beta, delta, gamma, and theta) have been shown to correlate with accomplishment of different tasks. This study looked further into the link between neurofeedback and how it is being used to improve sporting performance.
A study in 2015 by Mikicin aimed to understand how neurofeedback can improve the performance of and athletic mind. The study used 50 participants and split into two groups; an experimental group and a control group. The experimental group of 25 participants received 20 neurofeedback-EEG training sessions and also completed athletics training every seven days for a period of four months. The control group did not receive the neurofeedback but completed their athletic training. Measures were taken before and after the four month training regimes to understand the impact that neurofeedback had on the athletes. A significant improvement in the minds of the athletes was seen in the results which included an increase speed and efficiency of the mind. The author concluded that the neurofeedback-EEG training has the ability to improve the performance in the mind of the athlete.
Kao et al. (2014) looked at how expert golfers were able to use neurofeedback training as a way of improving their putting performance. In the study the participants received only one neurofeedback training session (this reduced the frontal midline theta amplitude). After the neurofeedback training the expert golfers improved their score or score stability. The authors concluded that the results of the neurofeedback training could be an effective tool that could be used in other athletes as well as golfers.
A study by Wang and colleagues (2013) also looked at frontal-midline theta activity and its effectiveness on working memory and attention. Thirty-two participants (both young and old) were placed into two groups. The first group received neurofeedback training while the other group received sham-neurofeedback training. The results showed that the neurofeedback training improved the working memory of older participants while younger participants improved their executive function. Performance on attention tests improved for both the younger and older participants.
Gruzelier et at. (2014) did a study on how neurofeedback training can improve the music performance of 11-year school children. The school children were novices when it came to their musical ability. Two groups of children were used in the study and the aim was to understand the impact that neurofeedback could have on their rehearsed music performance along with their sustained attention and creative improvisation. From the results the authors concluded that implementing neurofeedback in schools could benefit children from an early age.
A study done by Marian et al. (2014) focused on the use of eyes open alpha power training with gymnasts. Their research was based on previous studies that have indicated that peak performance can be improved by certain mental capacities (i.e., attentional control, positive affect, relaxation, and control). Two groups were used in the double-blind study. The first group received alpha power training and the control group received random beta power training. The results from the study showed that the gymnasts saw improvements in their physical shape, mental abilities, and sleep quality. These improvements were minor although the researchers concluded that even a small increase in performance for a sport such as gymnastics is valuable due to its demanding nature.
In 2014, Graczyk Marek and colleagues conducted a case study of an Olympic athlete who had lost his performance confidence following a sport injury. The authors compared the athlete’s QEEG (quantitative EEG/brain mapping) and ERP (event related potential) parameters before and after four intensive neurofeedback sessions. Results indicated that even a few sessions of neurofeedback had significantly activated the prefrontal cortical areas associated with increasing performance confidence.
Rostami and colleagues (2012) looked at how neurofeedback could assist rifle shooters in improving their performance. Twenty expert shooters were recruited and put into one of two groups; the first group received neurofeedback training while the other group did not. Measures were taken before and after the tests were conducted. Results showed that the group that received the neurofeedback treatment had a significant improvement in their accuracy. The group that did not receive any neurofeedback did not show any significant improvements at the end of the study. The authors concluded that neurofeedback could improve the performance of elite rifle shooters.
Leading up to the Winter Olympics in Vancouver in 2010, the Canadian National Short Track Speedskating team implemented a three-year multifaceted psychological skills training program. Biofeedback was integrated into the psychological skills program in an attempt to optimise an athlete’s self-regulation. The aim of this training was to improve an athlete’s performance when they face pressure situations, such as competing at the Olympic Games. Overall the Canadian team performed well in team and individual events at the Vancouver Olympic Games. This study was conducted by Beauchamp and colleagues (2012).
Another study on athletes preparing for the 2010 Vancouver Olympic Games was conducted by Dupee and Werthner (2011). The aim of the study was to optimise how athletes managed their stress response in competition with a focus on self-regulation and self-awareness levels in the central and autonomic nervous systems. EEG and psychophysiological stress assessments along with neurofeedback was administered to fifteen elite athletes. At the conclusion of the study the athletes along with their coaches reported that the neurofeedback intervention helped when it came to stress management in training and competition. They believed that it assisted the athletes improving their performances.
Zoefel et al. (2011) investigated the upper alpha frequency band as a neurofeedback parameter. Neurofeedback training was administered to fourteen participants who, within one week, received five sessions. Cognitive ability was tested in the form of a mental rotation task on the first and fifth session. The results showed that eleven of the fourteen participants (79%) had a significant increase in their cognitive ability.
As part of their preparation in the lead up to the 2004 World Cup in Football, Italy participated in biofeedback and neurofeedback training. They labeled a facility the “Mind Room” where players were assessed and taught to maintain appropriate breathing, coherent heart rhythms, dominant alpha brain states, and relaxed muscles. Wilson, Peper, & Moss (2006) looked at how the Italian team used this facility and then went on to win the World Cup in Germany. The authors point out that the “Mind Room” was not the sole factor in the Italian team winning the World Cup but they do mention that this type of training has become more widely used among professional teams.
Martijn Arns and colleagues (2008) conducted a study with 6 golfers demonstrating that overall golf performance (successful putts) was significantly greater during the feedback training sessions than the no-feedback training sessions. In addition, most participants improved their performance by 25% on average with the neurofeedback sessions. The authors concluded that there were recognisable and personalised patterns of optimal mental states for golf putting and that the real-time approach of neurofeedback improved learning speed.
Landers and colleagues (1991) took 24 archers and administered EEG biofeedback to see if this could improve their performance, confidence, and levels of self-reported concentration. There were 16 male and 8 female experienced pre-elite archers and they were randomly assigned to one of three groups. The first group received correct feedback, the second group received incorrect feedback, and the final group was the control group and they did not receive any feedback. Before any treatment was given the archers had 27 shots and this determined their baseline score. EEG data was collected for the left and right temporal hemispheres. Following this the correct feedback group and the incorrect feedback group received their treatment while the control group rested for 30 minutes. The archers then took another 27 shots at the target and the researchers found that the group that received the correct treatment significantly improved their performance while the group that received the incorrect feedback saw a significant decline in their performance. The control group did not show any significant difference between tests. There was no significant effect on the levels of concentration or confidence.
Gruzelier (2015) conducted a review of previous studies investigating cognitive and affective outcomes following neurofeedback therapy. Beneficial outcomes from the studies reviewed included gains in sustained attention, orienting and executive attention, memory, intelligence, mood and well-being. Overall, the review indicates the vast cognitive domains in which neurofeedback has been demonstrated to improve and supports the use of this therapy not only in clinical samples but also in healthy participants.
Escolano and colleagues (2011) explored the efficacy of neurofeedback training at improving working memory performance in healthy participants. EEG assessments were conducted before and after the neurofeedback training. The EEG analyses revealed enhancement of upper alpha frequencies, coinciding with significant improvements in working memory for the neurofeedback group only.
The most widely used training protocols focus on either the enhancement of the sensorimotor rhythm (SMR; 12–15 Hz) or modulation of the theta/beta ratio (TBR; theta: 4.5–7.5 Hz, beta: 17–21 Hz). Doppelmayr and Weber (2011) investigated whether such modulation can lead to improvements in different cognitive or creative tasks. The researchers found that the SMR group was able to modulate the EEG in the trained frequency bands and attain significant improvements in reaction time tasks and a spatial rotation task after training. Therefore, it can be concluded that following a series of 30 SMR training sessions, the positive outcomes noted in this study may have a future application in settings where abilities of fast reaction times and abilities of visuospatial awareness are important (e.g., in sports).
Clark and colleagues (2004) investigated the poorly understood consistent decline in working memory with increasing age. Specifically, they explored the relationship between working memory decline and alpha peak frequency (the peak of spectral alpha power of the EEG). The study made use of 550 healthy subjects aged between 11 and 70 years in the Brain Resource International Database. The measure of working memory (digit span) was found to be lower in older relative to younger age groups. Interestingly, spontaneous alpha peak frequency slowed with age, with frontal alpha significantly predicting working memory. The study provides potential insight for the use of neurofeedback training to increase low alpha levels in order to provide cognitive gains for working memory in healthy individuals.
A 2003 study by Egner and Gruzelier proposed that the enhancement of SMR (12-15 Hz) and beta1 (15-18 Hz) improve aspects of attentional processing in healthy participants. Subjects randomly allocated to neurofeedback training with either an SMR, beta1 protocol, or no neurofeedback (control group) were assessment prior and following the training process on two tests of sustained attention. The results indicate that SMR training was associated with a general attention-enhancing effect, whilst beta1 training lead to an arousal-enhancing effect.
Research dating back to 1974 by Beatty and colleagues demonstrated the lawful relationship of operantly conditioned cortical activity. Since an increase in EEG theta band activity has been associated with a deterioration of detection efficiency in monotonous monitoring tasks, the researchers set out to use biofeedback methods to suppress theta activity in order to enhance monitoring efficiency. Results from the study indicated this suppression of theta activity does indeed enhance monitoring efficiency, demonstrating the capability to suppress unwanted cortical activity using principles of operant conditioning.
In this 2018 study conducted by Agnoli and colleagues, rapid beta neurofeedback training was shown to increase originality and fluency in divergent thinking, and this was especially so in participants whose levels of creative achievement were low to begin with.
A 2008 study by Markovska-Simoska Silvana and colleagues showed that musicians who had two months of neurofeedback targeting Alpha-EEG and EMG (combined with musical practice) had significant increases in average alpha power and Alpha Peek Frequency (APF), a significant decrease in EMG and as well as better music performance than the participants who did just musical practice for two months. Highly-skilled musicians are characterized with high alpha activity and decreased EMG activity (lower muscle tension) whereas non-musicians and non-skilled music students show low alpha activity and increased EMG activity during performance. Although the efficiency of the biofeedback training depended on the baseline EEG alpha activity status (APF), both high and low-APF participants showed improvement in music performance from the neurofeedback.
Egner and Gruzelier (2003) replicated the results of an earlier pilot study demonstrating the application of neurofeedback for enhancing normal functioning on real-life behavioural performance: music performance under stressful conditions in classical music students. It was found that documented improvements in musical performance was highly correlated with learning to modulate slow wave EEG (alpha/theta training). The significant performance enhancement was not found with other neurofeedback training protocols or in alternative interventions, suggesting the specificity of alpha/theta training for improvements in musical performance.
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No authorship indicated (2015). Special issue: Evidence-based applications of biofeedback and Neurofeedback in sport. Biofeedback, 43, 51-53