Athletic performance enhanced by biofeedback

As the Olympics approach, top athletes are about to discover if their intense efforts in training have been enough to lead them to a medal. Talent is not enough in an time when peak performance training leaves no stone unturned in the search for a competitive edge.

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Science is a part of athletic training with biofeedback now providing a well accepted toolkit for the elite and well-informed enthusiast.  Biofeedback can assist in the physical aspects of training as well as the psychophysiological preparation of the athlete.

Within the last few decades, biofeedback has shown its value in medicine and psychology and protocols have developed for clinical practice in a wide variety of applications.  Around the late 1970's and 1980's researchers with an interest in sport were seriously exploring the application of biofeedback in three main areas.

  • stress management for athletes - how to reduce pre-performance anxiety
  • rehabilitation of sports injuries
  • training for peak performance

Biofeedback teaches an individual greater voluntary control over their own physiological functioning. It does this by using sensors that can measure such signals as heart rate, skin conductance, breathing rate, skin temperature, EMG (related to muscle tension) and much more.  Feedback allows the athlete to become first of all more aware of their "state" as part of a strategy to get more control of that state via a protocol.

For a detailed exploration of biofeedback in sport see the book by Sandweiss and Wolf (1985)

Recently an article by Pusenjaka and colleagues from Slovenia conducted a study to evaluate whether 8 weeks of biofeedback training would improve control over pre-performance anxiety and enhance performance among a group of top-ranked athletes. All subjects took biofeedback stress tests both before and after the 8-week period.

The experimental group consisted of 14 male and 4 female subjects with a control group had 17 male and 4 female participants. Study participants included male and female Slovenian national athletes aged 16–34.

Study authors concluded that a biofeedback program, particularly when combined with visualisation and progressive muscle relaxation, is an effective way for athletes to learn how to control mental and physical responses to stress.

Athletes who had learned biofeedback were able to control their physiological responses to stress, compared with those who had not under-taken the training. Significant differences were found in control over respiration, galvanic skin response and heart rate, in which the trained subjects performed much better. However, in the case of blood volume, the differences between groups were minimal.

Investigators followed up with biofeedback-trained subjects 1 year later to determine whether the training had provided any enduring value. The athletes reported that they were still sing the [self-regulation] skills regularly as part of their precompetitive and competitive preparation, even 1 year after training, and that these skills had enhanced their athletic performance.

References

Sandweiss, JH; Wolf, SL (1985) Editors
"Biofeedback and Sport Science"
Springer Science+Business Media, LLC
Nika Pusenjaka*, Anton Gradb, Matej Tusakc, Matevz Leskovsekd & Romina Schwarzline
"Can biofeedback training of psychophysiological responses enhance athletes’ sport performance? A practitioner’s perspective"
The Physician and Sportsmedicine
Volume 43, Issue 3, 2015
pages 287-299
DOI:10.1080/00913847.2015.1069169