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Winning Performance Using biofeedback for sport psychology and better athletic training

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Winning Performance
Using biofeedback for sport psychology and better athletic training

By Pierre Beauchamp, PhD, and Marla K. Beauchamp, MScPT, PhD(c)
Posted on: October 4, 2010
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Vol. 21 • Issue 21 • Page 24

As a mental performance consultant, I have witnessed firsthand the evolution of sport psychology services through working with various athletic teams and organizations including the Canadian Olympic Association, the Aerial and Mogul Ski Teams in the Salt Lake 2002 Olympic Games, Speedskating and Ski-Cross Canada in preparation for the 2010 Vancouver Olympic Games, and most recently with Para-Cycling Canada in preparation for the London 2012 Games.

Consequently, I have had the opportunity to familiarize Olympic athletes with a range of sport psychology programs, and specifically, to introduce biofeedback training that facilitates the self-regulation and mindfulness of athletes that ultimately allows them to perform on demand and under pressure. The primary aim of this article is to introduce the field of applied psychophysiology to the greater sports medicine community, using my work with Speedskating Canada as an example.

Enhancing Mindfulness

The rationale for biofeedback interventions in the athletic population is based on the psycho-physiological principle that states that every physiological change is accompanied by a corresponding change in the mental and emotional state. Conversely, the opposite is also true-change in thoughts or emotions will have a corresponding effect on the individual's physiology.1

Consequently, biofeedback can be a powerful tool for self-regulation and for enhancing mindfulness among athletes to better manage stress and pressure in preparation for sport performance.2 Olympic athletes, in particular, do not receive second chances; therefore, the ability to self-regulate in a desired direction is a critical skill for this population.3

Some Background

Much of the early work in biofeedback was limited to the medical field.4 However, quite a significant amount of biofeedback research was conducted in sport psychology during the 1980s and 1990s. Most studies found positive effects of biofeedback interventions on sport performance and stress management.5 Today, the biofeedback approach reflects a transactional view of sport performance.6 Specifically, sport performance (behavior) of athletes within a transactional system considers the environment (e.g., situation-athletes, coaches, professional support, family) and the interrelationships between the physiological, mental and emotional components of sport behavior.

Thus, information from a variety of sources must be assimilated to develop what is known as an "athlete profile."7 The sources of information come from the various sport medicine team members (e.g., sport medicine doctors, physiotherapists, nutritionists, physiologists, sport psychologists, equipment technicians, strength and conditioning coaches, high-performance directors), who are referred to as the Integrated Support Team (IST).

Generally, the IST will meet on a monthly basis to review each athlete and make recommendations to the coaches and high performance director. Consequently, the group profile is also important, such that if the group profile demonstrates a significant lack of stress management skills, performance under pressure may be compromised.

Biofeedback Assessment and Training

For Speedskating Canada, the biofeedback training program was conducted at the end of year one as part of a three-year comprehensive sport psychology program leading up to the 2010 Vancouver Olympic Games. Biofeedback assessment and training were introduced after other sport psychology interventions had been completed as part of an extensive program that included mental skills education with a cognitive behavioral approach, as well as mindfulness training through a mental skills log book completed daily by the athletes.

Several psychometric tests were also used to monitor and guide the direction of the interventions, such the Ottawa Mental Skills Assessment (OMSAT), Rest and Recovery Profile (RESTQ-S), Competitive State Anxiety Scale (CSAI-2), and the Test of Attentional and Interpersonal Style (TAIS). These data were gathered to develop individual athlete profiles and team profiles, which guided the IST and coaches in intervention decision making. In addition, this information served as feedback for athletes, which guided their individual mental performance consultations.

The biofeedback stress assessment consisted of both a psychophysiological and EEG test to evaluate individual responses to stress under 14 conditions (e.g., a stroop test). The following parameters were measured using software: heart rate and heart rate variability (HRV), respiration rate (RR), muscle activity using EMG, skin temperature (ST), skin conductance (SC), and brain wave activity frequency using EEG.

Training sessions were conducted each week both in the physiology and the EEG program. A competency-based approach prevailed until each athlete developed automaticity with each skill area (HRV, EMG, SC, ST, and alpha EEG training).The physiological component of the biofeedback training program involved teaching HRV to the athletes by using a 5 to 6 count to anchor their diaphragmatic breathing. Individualizing the program meant that athletes could continue in each training module until they developed the competency required before moving forward in the program. A stress test device was used for home education for those that required extra training. On average, six to 10 sessions per athlete were conducted in this phase.

The psycho-physiological training program consisted of teaching athletes alpha training such that they could relax mentally by reducing negative self-talk (Beta 2-3) and simultaneously rewarding Beta 1 and alpha, in both eyes-open and eyes-closed conditions. Once in this state, athletes were asked how they got into this state, and to give it a term to which they could return to in their next training session (i.e., centering, quiet mind). Sport-specific visualizations were also added in this alpha state to enhance confidence.

Finally, athletes were asked to use these skills in training through use of their daily log book, to consolidate them within simulated competitions. The next phase was to apply these skills in the World Cup competition. Self-monitoring and evaluation completed the process, which ended the skill acquisition stage of year two.

Biofeedback Reaction-Time Program

In addition to the core biofeedback intervention, reaction-time biofeedback was utilized off-ice to more effectively prepare 500-meter sprinters with their pre-start routines. This training closely followed the learning of competencies in biofeedback and EEG training. Consequently, the scope and sequence of the reaction-time program was integrated seamlessly with the biofeedback training program.

The aim of the reaction-time intervention was to better prepare athletes for the 500m sprint events at the 2010 Vancouver Olympic Games. In short-track speedskating, having the quickest reaction time combined with a good start allows you the significant advantage of claiming the inside position on the first turn, thus forcing your competitors to skate wide or follow you around the 500m oval track.

Biofeedback reaction time in combination with an individualized pre-start routine, start technique and start confidence all play an important role toward speedskating sprint success.

The reaction time equipment was engineered to improve the athlete's alertness in terms of arousal regulation (activation), vigilance and expert signal sensitivity8-that is, the goal was to optimize the reaction time between hearing a gun/tone at the start of a race with the initiation of the first foot movement forward. Hundreds of starts could be trained this way in a training cycle without wasting much physical energy (under sub-maximal muscle tension).

Vancouver 2010 Olympic Games

The goal of this multifaceted sports psychology program, with biofeedback as an integral module, was to prepare each individual skater to perform their personal best performance under pressure and on demand at the Olympic Games. The Canadian Short-Track Speedskating Team achieved its goals, both from a sprint perspective and from a team perspective.

First, from a sprint perspective, the men's team brought home one gold and one bronze medal, while the women's team earned one silver medal and a fourth place in the 500m sprints. Finally, from a team perspective, the men's team won the team relay gold, while the women brought home the silver in the team relay for a total of five Olympic medals.

Future Implications

The role of sport psychology in a multidisciplinary context is increasingly recognized as an important component of the sports medicine team. Just as clinical athlete support is critical in dealing with injuries, the sport science support team also plays an integral role in guiding the athlete toward preparation and/or re-entry to the athletic playing field.

Multidisciplinary sports medicine centers that cater to a variety of athletes' needs will play an increasing role in guiding athletes toward injury prevention, sport-specific training and performance enhancement.

The future appears promising with the development of multifaceted sport medicine facilities that-in addition to clinical support-will incorporate psychological skills training and strategies for performance enhancement, which may include the utilization of biofeedback, reaction-time training, vision training, sport-specific decision training, virtual reality simulators and sport performance analytics.

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1. Green, E., Green, A.M., & Walters, E.D. (1970). Voluntary control of internal states: Psychological and physiological. Journal of Transpersonal Psychology, 2, 1-26.

2. Zaichkowsky, L.D., & Fuchs, C.Z. (1988). Biofeedback applications in exercise and athletic performance. In K. B. Pandolf (ed.), Exercise and sports sciences reviews (pp. 381-421). New York: Macmillan.

3. Schwartz, G.E. (1979). Disregulation and systems theory: A biobehavioral framework for biofeedback and behavioural medicine. In N. Birbaumer & H. D. Kimmel (eds.), Biofeedback and self-regulation (pp. 19-48). New York: Erlbaum.

4. Moss, D. (ed.). (1998). Humanistic and transpersonal psychology: An historical and biographical sourcebook. Westport, CT: Greenwood.

5. Falk, B., & Bar-Eli, M. (1995). The psycho-physiological response to parachuting among novice and experienced parachutists. Aviation, Space and Environmental Medicine, 66, 114-117.

6. Tennenbaum, G., Bar-Eli, M. (1995). Contemporary issues in exercise and sport psychology research. In S. J. H. Biddle (ed.), European perspectives on exercise and sport psychology (pp. 292-323). Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.

7. Blumenstein, B., Bar-Eli, M., & Tenenbaum, G. (1997). A five step approach to mental training incorporating biofeedback. The Sport Psychologist, 11, 440-453.

8. Cox, R.H., & Hawkins, H.L. (1976). Application of the theory of signal detectability to kinesthetic discrimination tasks. Journal of Motor Behavior, 8, 225-232.

Pierre Beauchamp is a mental performance consultant with Peak Sport Performance Mindroom, in Montreal, Quebec. Marla K. Beauchamp, MScPT, PhD(c), also contributed to this article. She is a physiotherapist and PhD candidate in the Graduate Department of Rehabilitation Science at the University of Toronto, Ontario.