Putting biofeedback to work for athletes

The self-regulation skills needed by the elite athlete can be learned and enhanced with biofeedback training.  It's not a deep secret that If you want to excel at anything you need to manage pressure and learn to regulate a number of physiological and psychological processes.  Gaining insight and self-awareness of how we individually respond to pressure is hard to do without instrumentation because these processes work at least partially at an unconscious level. When we are under intense pressure we may even be in a state where clear, rational thinking is not accessible to us. Stress can often mean tight muscles that slow our movements or destroy the subtle control we need for an effective, consistent golf swing or precise athletic manoeuver. It can mean lost focus and concentration just when we need them the most.

Training individuals to succeed by gaining control of physiological processes associated with movement, emotions and thoughts is one of the primary purposes of biofeedback training. However, I've heard of athletes frustrated or confused about how to transfer the "learnings" of biofeedback, successfully conducted in an office environment, to effective deployment in competition.  Actually if you couldn't transfer learning into the heat of competition, what use would it be?  To explain how, we need to consider what we need to learn and have a conceptual model for how we learn.

Internal processes

 Biofeedback training starts with a cognitive stage

Biofeedback training starts with a cognitive stage

When you really think about it, there are lots of "internal" processes that can interfere with our performance under pressure. We might have negative self-talk, elevated heart rate, excess muscle tension that interferes with movement or even breathing. We experience distracting thoughts, high emotions and our focus simply being on the wrong things. 

Biofeedback instrumentation can provide the means to monitor and provide insight into the ebb and flow of these things and provides the leverage to bring about learning of new positive states. A fundamental question would be - "How do I know when I have learned?", "When can I trust this learning?", "How long does it take for the training to sitck?"

Of course being able to demonstrate control of these processes repeatably is part of it, but what really matters is control under the pressure of competition.  No use having succeeded 50 times in the lab if nothing improves in actual competition.

Learning stages

We could model learning as typically consisting of three stages - A Cognitive Stage, an Associative Stage and a Autonomous Stage.  In the rest of this article we look at the Cognitive Stage of learning.

During the cognitive stage, the athlete is learning a new skill in fine detail in a quiet, distraction and stress-free environment.  It is absolutely far removed from the arena and pressure of competition.  The athlete must rely on external feedback to gauge if the skill being trained is being performed correctly. 

For example, you might use biofeedback to learn to regulate arousal.  The athlete for example is typically feeling anxious in the build up to a competition and this is destructive of the build upand the early stages of competition.  If we were using a muli-modal system like a NeXus 10 we could simultaneously monitor GSR, respiration rate, ECG and skin termperature and provide real-time audio-visual feedback on the status of this data to the client.

The feedback is absolutely essential because it allows the athlete to make a conscious "connection" between his or her feelings (awareness) and their current arousal state. Without the feedback they would have to rely on their internal awareness of arousal and that is almost certainly a faulty signal.  It is lack of true awareness that is part of the problem.

BioTrace software can highlight an athletes response to stress

At this cognitive stage of learning, performance anxiety can get in the way and interfere with learning. So we might find that asking an athlete to relax initially produces the opposite effect. It is hard sometimes to recognise that the best way to achieve a particular state is more about "letting go" than it is about doing something. This stage can sometimes be thought of as "learning to let go of struggle".

After a period of working in this stage it is likely that the athlete starts to see some success and then the feedback obtained through the biofeedback screen becomes positive reinforcement.  At this stage though the athlete may not really know what they did to be successful.

During the early training a number of self-regulation skills might be introduced - for example, diaphragmatic breathing, visualisation and imagery, meditation and thought stopping.  This stage is often about thinking less and feeling more. Biofeedback technology can help by quantifying and recording progress as well as providing the means to refine the feedback as progress is made.

In the next article we will introduce what happens in the Associative Stage of learning as we progress toward making biofeedback impactful in competition.