Discover more from Sport Psych Insight
Neurofeedback & Mental Performance
Complimentary techniques for enhanced performance
Sports and technology have a tight knit relationship. As the limits of human performance continue to expand, technology steps up to help us become faster, stronger, and more explosive. The reverse is also true—as technology continues to improve and the data we gather becomes richer and more contextually relevant, humans are better equipped to break new barriers.
Neurofeedback is one such tool that is growing in popularity and accessibility, boasting a wide range of benefits for mental performance. While counseling or traditional mental skills training can help individuals increase their motivation, confidence, or relationship with anxiety, neurofeedback goes “under the hood” to make more direct changes to the brain.
Neurofeedback works by using an electroencephalogram (EEG), a series of electrodes placed on the scalp that monitor the brain’s electrical activity. The frequencies that these electrodes detect are categorized into five different brain waves: gamma, beta, alpha, theta, and delta. The unique characteristics associated with these brainwaves cause various behavioral and psychological experiences. For example, individuals that have abnormally high beta frequencies may experience over-arousal symptoms like anxiety and restlessness.
The purpose of neurofeedback is train the brain to recognize when its brain waves are organized in a way that is conducive to the desired behavioral or performance outcome, and “reward” this type of brain activity.
So for someone who is struggling with restlessness, trouble sleeping, or performance anxiety due to high beta, protocols can be set to “reward” the brain when it inhibits beta activity. These electrical signals are then sent to computer monitor which translates this information and delivers the reward in the form of visual, auditory, or tactile stimuli.
For example, one system that I’ve used in the past reads your brainwaves while you sit and watch a movie or TV show (enabling a relatively relaxed, but engaged brain state). On the edge of the screen is a black frame that contracts when high beta activity is detected (covering the screen and making it difficult to see), and expands when it’s inhibited (revealing more of the screen and making it easier to watch the show). The expanding and contracting of the frame serves as the “feedback” for the brain. Over time, the brain begins to recognize when it’s being rewarded, and with consistent practice, begins to rewire itself to more easily access and tap into these desired states.
Neurofeedback is “brain training” in its most literal sense.
Complimentary Training Strategies
Neurofeedback is a technology that works well on its own, but can be especially powerful when paired with mental skills training. Though everyone can learn the same skills and apply them in the same way, not everyone has the same default setting. People’s brains—and brain waves for that matter—can be impacted factors like trauma, concussions, and even covid, altering how different brain regions communicate with one another. This can subsequently hinder our ability to apply certain skills. In other words, learning enhancement techniques can be challenging when our brain isn’t on the right setting. Imagine trying to learn relaxation strategies if your brain is constantly putting you in a state of restlessness? This might slow the process of mental skills training and lead to some frustration as well.
My former supervisor used to liken neurofeedback to a software update, saying that it’s hard to run certain programs if you don’t have the right software in place. In this sense, neurofeedback provides an opportunity to formulate a new baseline—one that is fine tuned to handle the psychological skills and behavioral changes you wish to implement.
To be clear, I’m not saying you have to have an optimal cocktail of brain waves in order for mental skills training to be effective. But when people’s baselines are impacted by things out of their control (e.g., sickness, concussions, chronic anxiety or depression), it can be helpful to prime the brain to make the desired changes. Just as you fill your body with the right nutrients to prepare it to perform at its best, neurofeedback prepares the brain to learn and implement the skills to help you excel.
Neurofeedback is a tool that uses EEG to record brain activity (specifically brain waves).
Electrodes send signals from the EEG to computers that translate this information into “feedback” via visual, auditory, or tactile stimuli. This feedback gradually teaches the brain when its brainwaves/activity are conducive to the desired behavior/performance.
Neurofeedback pairs well with traditional mental skills training or counseling by going “under the hood” to prime the brain to learn and implement new skills.
Running programs is hard when you don’t have the right software. Neurofeedback provides an “update” to that software.
Neurofeedback helps bring more objectivity to a traditionally subjective field. The lack of hard data can make psychology challenging at times, with success being dependent on how people feel. Don’t get me wrong—how you feel should certainly not be ignored, whether that feeling is good or bad. However, personal experience has taught me that pairing experience with data can create more insightful learning and enhance awareness, two key factors that I believe are essential to behavior change and growth. Thus, I’m a huge advocate for quantifiable intervention strategies in addition to traditional coaching/counseling. Both are great on their own, but I think they are extremely complimentary and show great upside when used in tandem.
No threads, no hacks—just science and its applications. 🧠📈
The opinions shared in the article above are my own, formed from observational accounts and conversations while training under a Licensed Professional Counselor and certified neurofeedback practitioner.
Treatment and outcomes vary. If you are interested in learning more about neurofeedback, I’d encourage you to talk with a healthcare provider or a licensed professional (neurofeedback has it’s own licensing and training board) before getting started.