Biofeedback for athletes - embed the learning

This is the third article in this series about a process to embed the lessons of biofeedback into the athletes competitive behaviour.  So far we have reviewed stages one and two - the Cognitive and the Associative stages.  During these learning stages the athlete has practiced achieving high performance states with the help of multiple physiological sensors and feedback from the monitoring computer.  After committing to the practice the athlete enters the third stage of learning in which the skill being practiced has developed to the degree that he or she need not consciously think about how to perform the skill.

A "trigger" like closing a visor can be linked to a high performance state through training

A "trigger" like closing a visor can be linked to a high performance state through training

For self-regulation skills, when an athlete has progressed to this third stage of learning, he or she can produce the required mind-body state at will.  In many cases, these physiological changes may occur with the presentation of a stimulus or trigger that allows conscious activity to be bypassed altogether. 

For example, a racing car driver may trigger the desired state at the start line by closing the helmet visor. 

A golfer who has developed the ability to achieve a calm physiological state may trigger that state simply by stepping forward and placing the ball on a tee. 

Those knowledgeable of NLP (Neurolinguistic Programming) will understand the concept of using a "trigger" to activate a desired and learned physiological state.  During the training process the trainer can introduce a trigger which is a "stimulus" that becomes paired with the desired state by repetition.  The trigger can become a sort of "short hand" representation of the desired state - perform the trigger by saying the word or carrying out the action and you get the desired state.

For example, an athlete that has tended to exhibit tension in the shoulder muscles can gradually learn with biofeedback to reduce that tension at will.  The trainer can then introduce a trigger word or phrase, or even a physical action, to activate the desired relaxation. The trigger is introduced first of all as the athlete learns to relax successfully and is then repeated a number of times. This process results in the athlete being to activate the desired state just by repeating the trigger word.  The body actually learns to do this very quickly; actually it learned to activate the undesirable state quickly so it should be no surprise that the opposite can also be true.

Another method of developing "automatic" activation of a desirable state is through the use of concentration routines. These are behaviour sequences that lead up to the performance of a skill. 

For example, watching the rugby professional make a conversion kick or a golfer about to strike the ball we will typically see the player carry out a series of actions each time they are in this situation. The aim of the ritual is to consistently get the athlete into his or her optimal performance state. Of course it is not the ritual by itself that is important. It is the embedded link with the mind-body state of skill that counts. So for example, if you or I carry out exactly the same moves, and mimic the athlete we would probably not deliver the same result!!

What often gets in the way of athletes finding a optimal mind-body state are distracting thoughts that produce anxiety.  The use of a concentration routine helps keep the conscious mind on track so that it is less likely to be distracted by corrosive thoughts.

When the athlete has reached the autonomous stage, learning and improvement are not at an end of course.  Research has shown that movement patterns can improve over many years of continued practice although the improvments may be very gradual.  Self regulation skills are therefore not something you either have or don't have - it is an incremental skill that you can continue to enhance.

A common frustration with athletes is that they feel unable to master their arousal levels in competition even though everything seems great in practice.  Learning to transfer self-regulation skills from practice to intense competition can be enhanced through introducing specific types of practice conditions. In the next artcile we will look at a series of steps to improve transfer of skills into competition.