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Optimal Performance Training with Biofeedback and Neurofeedback

Publication date: 08 August 2012

With the Olympic games currently in full swing it's an opportune moment to blog about optimal performance training with biofeedback and neurofeedback. Actually a lot of elite athletes are using biofeedback to enhance their performance. It's a pity they don't talk more about it - perhaps they want to keep the keys of success a secret.

Biofeedback and neurofeedback are tools that help with the mental side of performance - and of course that's a major part! But you don't have to be an elite athlete to benefit. The kind of skills that biofeedback develops are relevant to everyone - skills such as:

  • the ability to keep the mind focused, clear and sharp
  • the ability to achieve inner calm in the face of stressors
  • flexibility of mind - ramping up to peak performance at the key moments but then relaxing again afterwards, not getting trapped in a state of over-arousal.

Optimal performance is founded on an optimally functioning brain. But what does an optimally functioning brain look like? Actually you can learn a lot from inexpensive tools such as the EEG (brainwave) assessment I use in my practice (I follow a system developed by Paul Swingle, one of the world's leading neurotherapy practitioners). Key parameters are:

  • The brain's self-quieting ability - expressed as the theta:beta ratio measured at the back of the head. When theta:beta is too low the brain can't still itself and is stress-intolerant. (Theta and beta are two frequency bands that make up the EEG.)
  • Brain efficiency measured as alpha speed. Alpha is another EEG frequency band. When it is too slow the brain seems to be dull and inefficient. Alpha tends to slow down as we reach old age. Memory isn't as sharp as it once was. But with the right stimulation and exercise we can counter the decline.
  • Focus - as expressed by theta:beta in the front of the head. Too high tends to go with fogginess.
  • Emotional resilience as expressed by the left-right balance in the EEG at the front of the head.
  • Flexibility of focus - as reflected in the ratio of high beta to beta measured towards the front of the head, over the brain's anterior cingulate gyrus (ACG). When the ACG is over-revved the ratio goes too high and it's reflected in rigidity of focus or obsessiveness. Too low and we experience apathy and indifference.

Dr Swingle recommends the following approach to optimal performance training:

  1. First identify the individual brain's specific weaknesses
  2. Work to rebalance these at the neural level using neurotherapy techniques
  3. Lastly work on performance optimisation, using neurotherapy and all the other techniques available to sports psychologists and coaches such as imagery and mindfulness.

Specific biofeedback and neurofeedback tools can address weaknesses that the assessment may show up. Here are some examples:

  • Heart Rate Variability (HRV) biofeedback can be used to train flexibility in the Autonomic Nervous System, to reduce excess beta in the EEG and develop the ability to quiet the mind. HRV biofeedback is a widely used optimal performance tool, with research showing it can benefit both physical and cognitive performance. (HRV training is also known as Heart Rate Coherence biofeedback.)
  • HEG neurofeedback trains executive function, including the ability to maintain a steady focus. It does this by exercising the frontal part of the brain (prefrontal cortex) which is pivotal in executive functions.
  • Audio Visual Stimulation (AVS, also known as Audio Visual Entrainment) has been used to stimulate "brain brightening" by increasing alpha speed, particularly in elderly people suffering cognitive decline.
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