Helping athletes with biofeedback

We discussed the Cognitive Stage of biofeedback learning In yesterday's article.  After the athlete is exposed to the techniques of self-regulation and several biofeedback sessions have been conducted, the athlete will have progressed to a second stage of learning. This stage is the Associative Stage in which the athlete begins to learn to associate internal awareness with external feedback.

During the Cognitive Stage the athlete it Is effectively using trial and error to discover the correct way to trigger the desired response. The source of feedback has been the computer monitor and the trainer who are nudging the athlete to learn and judge how successful the process has been.

The Associative Stage brings about two distinct advances in training.
Firstly, the athletes awareness of his or her internal state of body-mind becomes much more accurate.  Our biofeedback equipment can measure many signals that relate to the instantaneous state of the autonomic nervous system such as heart rate, skin temperature, breathing rate and so on.  For example, if the athlete feels that a lower heart rate was achieved during biofeedback training, this will correctly match the true, observed, measurement.

We will commonly used a dual screen setup - the athlete's screen on the right

The second change is that the athlete has a greater understanding of the internal processes that will tend to produce the desired results. This means that the athlete is able to consistently reproduce the goal state even if there is little awareness at this stage of exactly how it was achieved. In effect, the Associative Stage of learning helps the athlete become much less reliant upon external feedback to tell him or her that the desired goal was reached.

The primary goals of learning at this stage are to enhance internal awareness and to learn how to produce the desired results at will

During this stage the athlete may be asked to share his feelings on what has changed as a result of trying to reach a goal state. The athlete can be shown the data so that a comparison can be made of the athletes feelings about his body-mind state and the actual situation.  During the early stages of training the athletes assessment may well be different from the actual physiological changes.  However by providing the external feedback after asking the athlete to articulate his internal awareness, this will help the athlete begin to fine tune the accuracy of his internal awareness. Through successive trials the athletes internal awareness will become is accurate as the external feedback.

The second strategy for helping the athlete progress through the Associative Stage Is to provide guidance whilst discovering techniques for executing a skill correctly. You can ask the athlete what he felt occurred when he produced the desired results.

We can easily measure GSR (EDA) skin conductance and skin termperature with NeXus sensors

For example, during a training session the trainer may instruct the athlete to raise the temperature of his hands as measured with a sensor attached to a finger. The trainer can turn the computer monitor away from the athlete to withdraw the external feedback whilst still recording the changing skin temperature.

The trainer can watch and waits for the athlete to produce the desired results at which point the trainer can ask the athlete what changes he believes he produced. This question prompts the athlete to rely on internal awareness.

The trainer can then provide the athlete with computer summary of the actual changes that occurred. This comparison of internal awareness and external feedback can assist the athlete in working toward more accurate internal awareness. The trainer can ask the athlete what he did to raise the temperature of the hand and this question prompts the athlete to discover what techniques helped him execute the skill and therefore figure out for himself what he did to produce the correct changes.

Moving through the Associative Stage may take longer than the other stages of learning. However by continuing to prompt the athlete to become aware of internal states you will make the discovery of what he needs to do to produce the desired changes. This builds confidence in his understanding that enhanced self-regulation is based on things he could control and not on external sources that can’t be controlled. Sometimes this fact alone create significant changes in self-confidence when it comes to competition.

The next artvile in this series will look at the third stage of biofeedback learning which is referred to as the Autonomous Stage in which the skill has developed for mind-body state management to be managed by the athlete without consciously paying attention to it.