Biofeedback for high performers

High performers of all kinds, whether athletes, musicians or business leaders understand the importance of being in the right “state” to be at their best.  

When we see the New Zealand All Blacks perform their Haka before the rugby match there is no doubt that they are aiming for a particular high performance state.  Although it is sometime mistaken for a "war dance" this is not particularly accurate. The Haka has many levels of cultural meaning to generate emotion and in one sense actually means "To ignite the breath".  Anyone who has played the All Blacks would testify to the effectiveness of this state management technique as a way of igniting the breath, energising the body and inspiring the spirit.

If we look closely, a state is the bundled up effect of how our thoughts and feelings manifest in our actions.  A state is not one thing of course - we need different performance states to suit different situations. A golfer will need a different skill set from a business leader or a rugby player.

Managing our state is vital to success in many aspects of sport and of life because our thoughts and feelings ultimately dictate - and actually limit - what behaviours are possible for us.  This is generally true but is especially so when we are under pressure to perform.

We have also known for a long time that emotions can be contagious.  If you are business leader, captain of your sports team or leader of the orchestra and you want certain thoughts, feelings and behaviours from your colleagues you need to be prepared to generate these states first. 

We tend to entrain to the strongest signal in our environment and when we want to be any kind of leader it obviously makes sense that state management is ideally a choice and not an accident.  If a leader “looses it” then the team performance is clearly not going to be up to scratch.

Many successful athletes and business leaders are “naturals” when it comes to state management but certainly not all of them.  We see that many will adopt rituals and tactics to “psych themselves up” before the event.

There are other techniques too.  In the author’s view, one of the most useful aspects of learning the ideas of NLP (Neurolinguistic programming) was gaining greater self awareness and a greater ability to manhandle myself into a desired performance state.

When state management is so natural and unconsciously dealt with, things can happen that negatively impact on performance. The athlete who gets injured can suddenly find that confidence is lacking and it is then not so easy to put self-doubt to one side anymore.  The golfer who one day finds that even thinking about taking a putt starts the hands shaking may not have a strategy for getting things back on track.  This is where biofeedback approaches can really help

By using biofeedback approaches we can shine a light on how thoughts and emotions influence our physiology

Years ago I was working with a former “world entrepreneur of the year” and was shocked to learn how he put himself into the state of mind he needed to address his employees.  He visualised himself failing and letting down his family and all his employees. He literally used fear of failure as his motivator.  It worked for him but probably this was not a great long term strategy for health.

High performance is ultimately about mind and body management. People sometimes talk about the connection between the mind and body when in actual fact this distinction is artificial. Our thoughts and feelings are as “real” in some senses as our flesh and bones.  

Biofeedback technology and ideas are increasingly being used to give athletes the personal insights and leverage to find higher performance. They have even been used in leadership coaching to allow business leaders the keys to high performance states.

In the field of biofeedback we might refer to “psychophysiology" which is another way of saying the inference of psychological processes, emotional states and performance outcomes from examining physiological measures. 

By using biofeedback approaches we can shine a light on how thoughts and emotions influence our physiology.  Once we have more conscious feeling for these things we have a major key to create higher performance on demand.

Let’s think for a moment what might be useful high performance states for an athlete or a business leader.

  • absence of fear and a reduction in cognitive anxiety
  • freedom of movement and thought without overanalysing performance
  • intense focus on performance without outside interruptions 
  • control over voluntary and involuntary movement 
  • a perception that there is plenty of time - “time has slowed down”
  • increased self confidence and enhanced self-control

The most commonly used biofeedback modalities used in sport are HRV (Heart Rate Variability), Respiration rate, skin temperature, EMG, EDA (Electrodermal Activity) and EEG.  

Using a multi-modal biofeedback system such as those in the NeXus range can allow a peak at the subtle and sometimes dramatic changes in the ANS (autonomic nervous system) in response to the stresses and strains of competition. The ANS, comprising the sympathetic and parasympathetic branches, controls the cardiovascular, digestive and respiratory functions. Salivation, perspiration, pupillary regulation, urination and more are all controlled by the ANS. The sympathetic branch is responsible for fight or flight reactions whist the parasympathetic side is responsible for rest and digestion. These two branches are functionally antagonistic to each other and seeking short and longer term balance is good for health and performance.

In biofeedback training, the trainer is assisting the athlete in developing strategies that can give greater voluntary control over the performance responses that are not normally under conscious control.  During this self-regulation process, the athlete first learns to regulate various physiological states with the biofeedback instrumentation and then “feels” how to do this without instrumentation.

Reference:  Hirini Reedy - Author, The Warrior Secrets of The Maori