A Pittsburgh Steelers defensive back sits in an easy chair by a computer watching a movie with electrodes attached to his scalp. As he is watching the movie, the screen changes in size, giving him feedback as to when his brain is in The ZONE. This professional football player realized that his mind was keeping him from achieving his athletic potential. He was concerned about his performance and afraid of making mistakes and had difficulty letting go of the last play. In essence, he was having difficulty staying in The ZONE.
Sports psychology literature is filled with references to The ZONE. It has been described as the pinnacle of achievement for an athlete. The ZONE is a state in which an athlete performs to the best of his or her ability. In a paper by Michelle Pain and Janet Young of Morash University, they say:
“It is a magical and special place where performance is exceptional and consistent, automatic and flowing. An athlete is able to ignore all the pressures and let his or her body deliver the performance that has been learned so well. Competition is fun and exciting. (Murphy 1996, p. 4).”
Athletes talk so much about performing in The ZONE and how awesome it feels—how the movement comes automatically. Many athletes view The ZONE as this amazing, hard-to-obtain state of mind. But it is really not that complicated or hard to achieve. The ZONE is simply a mental state of total involvement in the present moment, without the mental burden of worry, doubt, or fear about results.
The Pittsburgh Steeler mentioned earlier had sought the best nutritional and training advice, but recognized that he had done nothing to train his mind, and that ultimately kept him from performing optimally.
The Italian soccer team in 2006 won the World Cup; in the 2010 Winter Olympics, the Canadian freestyle ski team won more gold medals than they ever had before; the Vancouver Canucks made it to the Stanley Cup finals in 2011, Mary Pierce won four grand slam tennis tournaments; Phil Mickelson won four Majors and over 40 events on the PGA tour; Herman Meier won 54 World Cup skiing races; and in 2012 the St Thomas University women’s basketball team played in the national tournament.
What do these athletes have in common? Neurofeedback! They all used technology to train their brains to be in The ZONE. Neurofeedback makes it possible for athletes to gain the competitive edge on the sports field without having to spend more hours practicing. By identifying areas of the brain pertinent for performance enhancement and improving how they function, behaviors can be altered. Athletic deficits, areas of weakness and even extraneous distractions can be eliminated from the game. “Different sports place different demands on the brain” (Hammond 2007). As such, treatment is tailored to the specific needs of the athlete based on a comprehensive evaluation.
In 2012, neurofeedback training was provided to 12 players on the St. Thomas University Division II women’s basketball team. The study first involved a diagnostic interview to gather pertinent background information on each player. The athletes then completed several psychological tests and questionnaires, participated in 23 neurofeedback sessions and then were reevaluated.The study results follow:
- The team had the highest free throw and field goal percentages in school history and was invited to the national tournament for the second time in school history, despite losing its two starting guards to knee injuries.
- There was a 94% improvement in sustained attention and a 68% improvement in impulse control.
- There was a 31% drop in over all symptoms for the team, with one athlete reporting a 54% drop in symptoms.
Athletes responded to stimuli with lower intensity:
- Athletes demonstrated improvement in conflicts/pressure, fatigue, lack of energy, physical recovery, burnout/emotional exhaustion, fitness/injury/being in shape, self-efficacy and disturbed breaks.
- Results transferred to the court, as the team was invited to the National Tournament, one player was named Sun Conference Defensive Player of the Year, two players were named First-Team All-Conference and one player was named Second-Team All-Conference.
- During the season, four players were awarded Sun Conference Player of the Week; players held the 3rd and 5th top scorer position in the conference; a player ranked #1 in the conference for steals per game; one player ranked 3rd in the conference for rebounds per game; and another ranked 4th in the conference for field goal percentage.
- The team was ranked 2nd for offensive scoring, as well as defensive scoring, per game; 3rd for defensive field goal percentages and total offensive rebounds per game; and 5th for offensive field goal percentages.
Our current athletes, including the player for the Steelers, go through an identical process to evaluate progress with regard to the various psychological factors that impact performance on the field. Players also provide feedback at each session as to how they are performing in both practice and games in order to target optimal performance within every training session.
In addition to alleviating psychological symptoms (e.g., anxiety, depression) and sports-related injuries (e.g., concussions, migraines, muscle tension) that can interfere with sports performance, neurofeedback training can improve various areas necessary for optimal performance: relaxation, focus, agility and timing (Winning with Sports 2008), as well as maintaining and/or enhancing motivation (Wilson et al. 2006). Pressure to perform can be intrinsic or extrinsic, but whatever the cause, pressure can have damaging effects if the athlete is unable to effectively manage it. Unexpected mistakes as a result of unmanaged pressure can be costly during competition for the athlete or the team as a whole (Albright 2010). With training, an athlete can become more comfortable performing in high-pressure situations without buckling or choking (Winning with Sports 2008). This training becomes essential, especially for those athletes in specialty positions/sports. Training to improve focus helps an athlete eliminate distractions from opponents, the crowd, and/or self-talk that can inhibit optimal performance.
Many times, athletes can be their own worst enemy. Focusing on past failures removes the athlete’s confidence, setting him or her up to fail as long as he or she remain unfocused and self-criticizing (Wilson et al., 2006; Winning with Sports, 2008). Neurofeedback tries to block this downward spiral of self-destructive doubting. When it works, it helps the player find The ZONE and stay in it (Max, n.d.). Finally, agility and timing also become an important factor for optimal performance (Winning with Sports, 2008). Athletes already have the skills to compete and meet the demands of the position in their chosen sport, but they need to fine-tune their skills to be effective on a consistent basis. Split-second decisions become easier through neurofeedback training, and the athlete becomes better able to perform as the movements become automatic.
Neurofeedback is helping athletes to gain the competitive edge over their opponents, allowing athletes to reach the optimal mental and physical states necessary to be successful on the field. Neurofeedback training is an investment in their career and in themselves.