Neurofeedback and Performance Psychology

Preface

            The following blog is meant to provide an outline of a neurofeedback treatment approach that incorporates aspects of performance psychology. Future blogs will provide more in-depth discussions on Peak Performance, Theories, and Interventions. Stay tuned!

            Often, colleagues and clients will present with confused looks when talking about the usefulness of sport and performance psychology interventions with neurofeedback clients. Many seem to miss the fact that almost every aspect of a person’s daily life involves some sort of performance. For example, it takes effort to motivate yourself to get out of bed and start the day or even talk with your friends about their days. Confusion quickly shifts to interest after people start to realize how much of their lives involve intrapersonal (internal) and interpersonal (social) performances. In fact, they start to realize that everyone is striving to maximize peak performances in all life domains.

Peak Performance

            A peak performance occurs when someone is competent enough to overcome a challenge, but not too experienced, which makes the challenge too boring. Think about a time when you were able to perform at the peak of your ability with positive results. During this performance, you may have noticed that time became an afterthought, you had intense feelings of confidence and control, and you expected success. Many people capable of reaching peak performances will describe being “in the zone” and totally immersed in the challenge. If you think you may have never experienced this kind of performance, then try to think of an interesting conversation. Similar traits will be found in that you may have lost track of time, felt immersed in the discussion, and felt excited about the experience. Peak performances are what clients should strive for when working with neurofeedback.

Theoretical Approach

            To reach a peak performance, one must be able to regulate their energy levels. Neurofeedback clinicians operate on an arousal model, which is like the Inverted-U (Yerkes & Dodson, 1908) and the Individual Zone of Optimal Functioning (IZOF; Hanin, 1997) models. The Inverted-U theory of arousal involves a measurement of energy for a person at a given moment. The theory also measures the person’s performance at the same moment and compares the two. Yerkes and Dodson (1908) noticed that someone with energy that is too low or too high will provide a poor performance. IZOF (Hanin, 1997) is similar in that a practitioner wants to identify the person’s precise levels of energy required for a peak performance. Think back to the story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears with regards to the porridge needing to be just right.

            Neurofeedback clinicians want to find the optimal level of arousal, or EEG waves, for each person so they can further reinforce these states. However, it is important to remember that a person needs to be flexible with their energy levels throughout a performance. For example, a basketball player needs a burst of energy to drive to the basket, but then needs to shift to a calm state when at the free-throw line. Another example involves the interesting conversation you may have remembered. During that conversation, you may have gotten excited when learning something new. However, you probably shifted to a calmer state as you encoded the information and tried to provide your views on the topic (Please refer to the blog on Neurofeedback and Perception to gain a better understanding of the relationship between the autonomic nervous system and performance). The Inverted-U and IZOF models help to demonstrate the importance of regulating and increasing the flexibility of the autonomic nervous system through neurofeedback because people with flexible and well-regulated nervous systems will produce peak performances more often.

Areas of Interest

            Neurofeedback clinicians using performance psychology tend to focus on 8 domains. These domains focus on intrapersonal functioning and interpersonal functioning. The first domain involves teaching the person how to set effective goals. For example, one useful method of goal setting involves the SMART method (Drucker, 1981). SMART is an acronym to help people increase the likelihood of completing their goals. People need to be Specific when setting goals. Many people set a goal involving “losing weight.” A better goal would identify the specific amount of weight that a person wants to lose. Goals should also be Measurable so a person can track their progress day-to-day, short-term, and long-term. For example, a person wanting to lose 20 pounds in 4 months would have a better chance at success if they had a weight loss goal of 5 pounds per month. Many practitioners use the “A” in the model differently, but most commonly, “A” involves goals needing to be Attainable and Adjustable. A person needs to know if losing 20 pounds is healthy for them. An adjustable goal would involve a person wanting to lose 15 to 20 pounds. This way the person has flexibility if unforeseen barriers occur. However, the person must view the minimum outcome as a success. Finally, an effective goal will be Timed and have a deadline. This way the client can track progress and avoid procrastination. Training people in goal setting is an important start for neurofeedback clinicians.

            A second domain involves strengthening the person’s energy management. Some people struggle to relax before a performance, while others may struggle to get going. Different interventions like deep breathing are taught in neurofeedback sessions to help the person learn how to regulate their physiology as much as possible. Clinicians also get feedback on their interventions and can adjust as needed. For example, inhaling activates the sympathetic nervous system while exhaling suppresses the sympathetic so the parasympathetic can function. Clinicians can then tell a person to inhale or exhale for a longer or shorter amount of time based on how the EEG waves are responding.

            A third domain involves teaching a person how to improve their ability to regulate concentration. During a peak performance you need to be able to focus, as well as shift attention at will. For example, a teacher giving a lecture needs to be able to focus on the information being provided, as well as be able to shift focus to a broader view of the students to see if anyone has any questions. Neurofeedback clinicians may teach people ways to improve focus, such as thought-stopping cues. Someone who gets distracted easily would benefit from having a verbal cue to say to themselves. Most often, people will whisper “focus” to themselves to help block out the distraction and lock back into the training.

            People in neurofeedback training need to attend sessions and do the work outside of sessions, so many clinicians utilize interventions to help people stay motivated. For example, a mission statement can be helpful as it states the person’s goal for treatment and methods for achieving that goal. Being reminded of what you are working towards and how to get there will help increase motivation.

            Another domain involves centering, which involves finding a point of balance in the body. Centering helps one feel in-touch with their body and brings stability to the mind and body connection. Williams (2014) discussed how centering helps one control tension and develop a sense of power over a challenge. Often people will meditate to feel centered, but another intervention to help teach centering is imagery.

            Imagery is an important skill to teach in neurofeedback training as it is beneficial by itself, but also helps with mastering other domains. Imagery involves perceptual experiences without stimulation. For example, you can probably taste your favorite food if you think hard enough about it. Virtual reality works because our senses are susceptible to manipulation, which results in our brains being tricked. Someone playing a virtual reality video game tend to have the same physiological reactions as if the game were real. Johnson (1982) described the phenomenon as functional equivalence (Weinberg & Gould, 2011). A person is taught how to create a detailed image or scenario that is polysensory. For example, a person may think of their favorite meal at their favorite restaurant. The clinician encourages the person to identify, as much as possible, what they saw, smelled, tasted, heard, and felt. The person then creates a script walking them through the meal so they can get the positive effects without having the experience. Often, imagery helps with centering, motivation, energy management, focus, and goal setting.

            Another domain involves teaching a person how to control self-talk and cognition. People with negative thoughts about themselves tend to think they will fail a performance. Negative thoughts tend to cause energy levels to go to one of the extremes, which results in the prophesied outcome. Simply put, negative thoughts can cause negative emotions, which contribute to unwanted behavior. For example, a basketball player thinks they will miss a free throw, which causes energy to spike and the ball to be overshot. However, a basketball player thinking they will make the shot will feel confident, which will result in the optimal energy level and give them the best chance at making the shot. Neurofeedback clinicians help people recognize the differences between negative, neutral, and positive self-talk so they can begin shifting negative and neutral thoughts to more positive thoughts.

            Once a person improves intrapersonal functioning, they can shift to improving the last domain involving interpersonal functioning. Team building is an important aspect of performance psychology and provides many interventions to improve social functioning. For example, neurofeedback clinicians may role-play difficult conversations with clients to help them strengthen their ability to read verbal and non-verbal cues, regulate affect and mood, listen effectively, and communicate messages effectively.

            Overall, performance psychology offers many useful theoretical approaches with unique interventions to help people improve intrapersonal and interpersonal functioning. The goal when using performance psychology with neurofeedback is to help people achieve peak performances as often, and across as many domains as desired. Personally, it is believed that neurofeedback clinicians would benefit from incorporating more aspects of performance psychology into their practice.

References

Weinberg, R., & Gould, D. (2011). Foundations of sport and exercise psychology (5th ed.). Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.

Williams, J. (2014). Applied Sport Psychology: Personal Growth to Peak Performance. Boston, MA: McGraw-Hill Publisher.

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