The majority of the body’s physiological processes are not under our conscious control and yet they directly influence our physical and cognitive performance. We have known for many years that learning to consciously control aspects of our physiology – at will and under pressure – is an important element of being able to perform at a peak level. Biofeedback for High Performance in Sports has become an important part of achieving the highest levels of athletic performance because by making use of these techniques and technologies, athletes and sportspeople of all kinds can learn to alter and improve their physiological states and responses to stressful situations.

Training that develops this type of learning is vital in situations that demand calmness in preparation and under the pressure of performance as well as improved focus, concentration, and power delivery when it needed. Biofeedback training also builds confidence as the athlete learns that “harmful” stress can be dissipated and on the optimal level of performance can be reached. The objective of biofeedback is to increase voluntary control over the physiological processes that are otherwise outside awareness, using the information about them in the form of an external signal.

           BFB for High Performance will allow athletes during competition and performance:

  • Control and reduce stress and anxiety,
  • Reduce or induce energy and intensity,
  • Improve focus and concentration,
  • Improve performance consistency,
  • Correctly schedule physical load and rest during training,
  • Facilitate recovery from injury.

Biofeedback for High Performance in sports provides access to many important aspects of performance such as muscle tension, heart rate, respiration rate. and more in a manner that is rapid, precise, and meaningful. The fundamental premise is that if the trainee is given information on one or more of these biological processes they can learn to regulate them consciously – even when the equipment is not available.

The biofeedback process has three fundamental elements

  • Firstly, physiological information is recorded from sensors placed on various parts of the body,
  • Secondly, this information is transduced, processed, amplified, and feedback to the trainee in the form of auditory, visual, and even kinesthetic signals, 
  • Thirdly, by paying attention to the feedback information, the trainee gradually learns to consciously alter and control the physiological behavior.

The use of different modalities of biofeedback is growing rapidly in sport psychology. The aim is to lower competition stress, performance anxiety, and muscle tension, as well as rapid and complete recovery after sports trauma. The most common biofeedback modalities that sports psychologists used include HRV, respiration, temperature training, EMG, EDR, and EEG.

  • Heart Rate Variability – Elevated heart rate may increase reaction time whilst learning to stabilize heart rate may increase endurance and cardiovascular efficiency.
  • Respiration – Improper breathing may lead to inefficient performance, choking, and hyperventilation.
  • Muscular tension – excessive muscle tension inhibits the speed of movement as well as rhythm, timing, and flexibility.
  • Sweaty palms – indicate emotional reactivity and anxiety.
  • Brainwave activity – EEG biofeedback (Neurofeedback) can be used to enhance the athlete’s ability to pay attention, focus, control their emotions and “slow down” a busy mind.
  • Peripheral body temperature – Measures blood vessel constriction and blood flow in the hands, feet, or forehead. Stress can cause blood vessel constriction or shut down of blood flow which can delay recovery from workouts or injuries

Multimodal Biofeedback for High Performance in Sport

Heart Rate Variability Biofeedback for High Performance in Sport

The time between each heartbeat is not fixed/consistent; it varies with every beat – hence the term heart rate ‘variability’ (HRV). HRV reflects the variation in time between each heartbeat, otherwise known as the R–R interval or the inter-beat interval. Whilst HRV-guided training appears to be more effective for developing aerobic performance than pre-planned training, it does not appear to be a reliable predictor of overreaching. HRV is a predictor of illness in elite athletes. The use of modern technology such as smartphone applications, heart rate monitors, and finger-wave pulse sensors is a reliable measure of HRV.

The variability in the heart rate provides critical information about the function of the autonomic nervous system (ANS), and it is also the most reliable measurement of ANS function. An increase in HRV represents a positive adaptation to, better recovery status, whilst a reduction in HRV reflects stress and a worse recovery status. The higher the athlete’s HRV, the better recovered they are, and vice versa.

The ANS is comprised of two branches; these are the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) and the parasympathetic nervous system (PSNS). The easiest way to distinguish the differences between these two branches is to associate “fight or flight” responses with the SNS, and “rest and digest” responses with the PSNS. Therefore, the SNS increases heart rate and the PSNS slows it down.

As HRV reflects ANS function and thus stress, it is frequently used in the athletic world to identify periods of optimal training and to monitor recovery status and any potential overtraining.

Heart Rate Variability & Sport Performance

It has been suggested that monitoring HRV can help identify the following:

  • Accurately reflect recovery status,
  • Help determine if an athlete is overtraining,
  • Identify when the athlete may be more or less adaptive to training,
  • Potentially predict when an athlete may perform better or worse on a particular day,
  • Potentially predict when the athlete is more susceptible to illness or injury.

During exercise, HRV is reduced (shorter R-R intervals) and HR is increased as a result of augmented SNS and attenuated PNS activity. Not only are the intervals between R-R peaks shorter, but they also become more uniform (reduced R-R variability). The relationship between sympathetic and parasympathetic activity during exercise depends directly on training intensity. During physical activity, sympathetic nerves can increase cardiac output to 2 to 3 times the resting value.

On the assumption that physical activity causes stress (a stimulus), the body will respond with a stress reaction on different physiological levels. In addition to a stress reaction, adaptation processes occur during the recovery period. If the magnitude of the stress stimulus (e.g. training load) is high enough (overload principle) to evoke a reaction in the body, then the response will be proportional to the stress level and, as a result, greater training effects will be accomplished (adaptation).

In order to reach higher performance levels, it is essential to understand that well-designed and integrated rest periods are of great importance. Recovery after training is considered an integral part of the training methodology. There is no improvement in performance if there is a lack of optimal recovery.

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Breathing Biofeedback for High Performance in Sport

Good breathing patterns are those that meet our needs and provide optimal conditions for health and performance. Only when corrective breathing is restored, performance can be enhanced to optimal levels.

Breathing biofeedback uses flexible bands placed around the abdomen and/or chest to monitor breathing patterns and respiration rates.

Breathing pattern (depth and frequency of breathing) continually varies and is highly sensitive to changes in both arousal level and emotional factors.
Diaphragmatic Breathing has long been known to activate the parasympathetic nervous system. Once this happens, individuals experience a drop in blood pressure and heart rate, an increasing HRV, a simultaneous increase in peripheral skin temperature, relaxations of muscles, and an overall sense of relaxation.

Biofeedback-assisted diaphragmatic breathing is used to teach people how to breathe with the abdomen, not the chest, and to breathe more slowly, deeply, and rhythmically using the abdominal muscles.

The typical adult breathing pattern, which may accelerate slightly just because of being measured, involves shallow thoracic movements with a respiration rate of 15-22 respirations per minute. There is also an absence of sinus arrhythmia.

In contrast, diaphragmatic breathing requires slow, rhythmic inhalations and exhalations with emphasis on the diaphragm muscle moving downward on inhalation and upward on exhalation. The respiration rate in diaphragmatic breathing is 5 to 8 respirations per minute and is associated with a return of normal respiratory sinus arrhythmia and increasing Heart Rate Variability.

According to research data, three weeks of respiration biofeedback training results in a considerable decrease in respiration rate as well as jerky breathing patterns exhibited earlier. For example, the shooter reported having been able to recover faster, prevent pre-competition anxiety, and regulate concentration and focus levels during competition. Corrective breathing patterns lead to enhanced performance levels.

Breathing Biofeedback for High Performance in Sports

Studies orientated toward the physiological mechanism of breathing intervention effects have indicated a shared physiological basis underlying breathing, emotion, and cognition, involving the autonomic nervous system. Physiological evidence has indicated that even a single breathing practice significantly reduces blood pressure, increases heart rate variability (HRV) and oxygenation, enhances pulmonary function, and improves cardiorespiratory fitness and respiratory muscle strength.

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Electromyographic Biofeedback for High Performance in Sport

The neuromuscular systems is the nervous and musculoskeletal system working together to produce movement. Any measure of these systems can be used to provide neuromuscular biofeedback. EMG biofeedback is the most widely investigated method of biofeedback. EMG biofeedback is a method of retraining muscle by creating new feedback systems as a result of the conversion of myoelectric signals of the muscle into visual and auditory signals.

EMG Biofeedback uses surface electrodes to detect a change in skeletal muscle activity, which is then fed back to the user usually by a visual or auditory signal. It can be used to either increase activity in weak or paretic muscle or it can be used to facilitate a reduction in tone of a spastic one. EMG biofeedback is useful also in both musculoskeletal and neurological rehabilitation.

Sports performance relaxation EMG biofeedback training surfaced as long ago as 1930 as researchers and coaches held the belief that relaxation was a key to peak performance. The theory of the autonomic nervous system is noting that there is indeed interaction of the muscles and especially of the face and head with the state of the brain and heart. Today some coaches effectively utilize the biofeedback relaxation of the facial and trapezius muscles as this has a powerful effect on overall relaxation. Besides, EMG biofeedback is targeting specific muscles based on the needs of a particular sport. Typical muscles for relaxation purposes would be the frontal muscle of the face and the trapezius muscles.

Appropriate feedback can be provided by EMG biofeedback in training based on the athlete lowering the level of muscle activation below some threshold level. Over several sessions, the athlete learns to perform this type of relaxation on cue without the need for instrumentation.

EMG Biofeedback for High Performance in Sports

Thus, the use of EMG biofeedback for high performance in sports will

  • Facilitate muscle constrictions,
  • Promote an increase in motor recruitment,
  • Regain neuromuscular control,
  • Decrease muscle spasm – decrease undesirable muscle activity that may be interfering with functional movement,
  • Promote relaxation,
  • Realize on time the risk of overloading working related to muscle pain,
  • Neuromuscular rehabilitation after sports trauma.

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Electrodermal Activity Biofeedback

The electrodermal activity (EDA) measurement brings interesting new information to analyze the performance of an athlete. This does not tell about the heart but about sympathetic nervous system activation through sweat gland reactions of the skin. Skin is the only organ that is purely innervated by the sympathetic nervous system. The EDA measurement is very sensitive to emotional and cognitive stress, and it has been used in psychological research already for over 100 years. Only lately it has become available for consumers. Training by EDR biofeedback is generally based on strategies for lowering arousal and maintaining a healthful sympathetic/parasympathetic tone, measured by electrodermal activity.

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Electroencephalographic Biofeedback (Neurofeedback)

Emotional arousal is primarily a topic in sport psychology that is commonly related to biofeedback. Consequently, arousal reduction is essential to successful performance. The psychological preparation of athletes for competition could be described as the athletes being mentally conditioned to withstand the rigors of fatigue, time pressure, undue expectations, and crowd pressure to give them the possibility of meeting or exceeding their performance goals. Besides psychological support, biofeedback technology and skills training should be an integral part of a training regimen. Competition stress, anxiety, and muscle tension are common antecedents of performance.

One of the well-known and widely used modalities of Biofeedback to manage arousal, concentration, focus, level of competition anxiety, and emotion of the athletes is the Electroencephalographic (EEG) Biofeedback or Neurofeedback (NF). Through neurofeedback, the athlete can objectively assess and control these variables in the long run.

Another area where neurofeedback may hold potential for improving athletic performance is in facilitating greater physical balance. Namely, improvements in balance might enhance performance, in skiing, ice skating, hockey, skateboarding, snowboarding, ballet, and possibly also in tennis, martial arts, basketball, baseball, and football.

Professional athletes use neurofeedback to build the ability to be ‘in the zone’; tuning out distractions during key situations, increasing processing speed, and focusing all their energies on the task at hand. Smoother function equals greater poise under pressure, improved recovery speed after an error, and less ‘over-thinking’ in crucial moments.

Neurofeedback & Biofeedback for Peak Performance in Sports

Neurofeedback (NF) refers to a specific operant-conditioning paradigm where an individual learns how to influence the electrical activity (frequency, amplitude, or synchronization) of his brain. The brain’s electrical activity is simply relayed to the computer so that no electrical current is put into the brain. It involves teaching skills through the rewarding experience of inducing EEG changes reflected in a perceivable signal (light or sound).

According to research data, after two weeks of neurofeedback training, organized two times weekly, and for a 50-60 minute duration, the athlete learned how to shift brain waves according to the aim.

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