Neurofeedback (NFB) or Neurotherapy is a type of biofeedback using real-time displays of brain activity. The main objective of neurofeedback sessions is to self-regulate certain brain functions to deal with issues or improve overall brain performance.
The typical neurofeedback session consists of placing sensors on the scalp for measuring electrical activity in the brain. Screens that display and monitor brain wave activity and provide real-time feedback help in the “self-regulation” process by “directing” the brain to act or behave in a specific way.
For instance, assume that heightened performance is the desired objective of a neurofeedback training session. When the brain begins entering an optimum state, feedback on the screen, in the form of music, a movie or a brain game, will play continuously, appealing as a reward.
Similarly, when the brain enters an undesired state, the movie or music stops, and the reward is gone. Just like how physical exercises help develop specific muscles, this type of brain exercise supports the brain into reaching more efficient states and overtime this becomes a “new normal” of brain functioning. The results include a boost in performance and better responses to stress and anxiety.
The benefits of neurofeedback are endless, from dealing with anxiety and stress to improving sleep and even overcoming fears. Athletes have been significant neurofeedback recipients because of the massive performance-boosting potential.
The Italian soccer team reportedly harnessed neurofeedback for enhanced game performance, and interestingly, clinched the 2006 FIFA world cup.
The Sleep Scenario
A study conducted to understand athletes’ sleeping patterns better revealed that 64% of the respondents slept “poorly” before critical competitions. Moreover, 82.1% claimed facing problems falling asleep before big games due to factors like nervousness and anxiety.
Another study revealed that 65.8% of the respondents experienced poor sleep at night(s) before major competitions. Nervousness and anxious thoughts of the upcoming games were considered the primary factors for their poor sleep.
Stress, anxiety, or fearful memories from the past all prevent athletes from falling and staying asleep. Sleep before an important day is vital for both mental and physical restoration.
Importance of Sleep for Athletes
A good night’s sleep helps athletes’ “download” valuable information regarding techniques or skills learned during the day. This process helps retain memories for future use.
Moreover, sleep is more crucial for athletes than non-athletes as it helps recover from significant stresses felt during training.
The duration and quality of sleep are vital for a healthy brain and body recovery before crunch games. As a result, poor sleep could negatively impact the next day’s game.
Four reasons why athletes choose neurofeedback for better sleep:
1. Reduces Stress
Neurofeedback helps in rewiring the brain, thus calming overactivated regions and stimulating under-activated parts. Once an athlete engages in a neurofeedback session, their brain begins understanding the underlying functions.
Neurofeedback directs the brain towards generating more of specific frequencies and less of some others. This filtered selection process creates new pathways and patterns in the brain, leading to healthier and efficient reactions to stress.
As a result, the brain reaches a relaxed state of mind. Along the process, the screens give positive or negative feedback accordingly to “teach” the mind to “choose” certain paths more frequently. Overall, neurofeedback training helps athletes deal with pregame stresses and get to sleep faster and stay asleep.
2. Reduces Anxiety
Anxieties before a big game are quite common, especially on a professional level. The anxiety could be of an upcoming game or fear of failure from a mistake during a previous game. Irrespective of the source of anxiety, sleep gets disrupted, and so does the performance.
The real reason anxiety disorders occur is poor control of the prefrontal regulatory over the brain’s amygdala. Establishing control over such pathways could help regulate elevated levels of anxiety.
Research has revealed that a real-time Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) neurofeedback training session helps strengthen the connection between the amygdala and ventrolateral prefrontal cortex (lPFC). The result was reduced anxiety ratings and better sleep.
3. Helps Forget the Past
Every athlete might have had that one blunderous game that cost his/her team the match, or probably the championship. Moments like these linger in the athletes’ minds and tend to emerge with vigor the night before a big game, or perhaps a game against the same opposition.
Such thoughts of the past can keep athletes up at night and cause a regret – anxiety loop while rambling between the “what-if” and “only-if” thought paradigms.
According to Science Daily, a unique technique known as ‘Alpha Theta Neurofeedback’ helps eliminate fears and intense emotions associated with thoughts of the past and helps you get back in the zone. Using qEEG brain mapping and neurofeedback, researchers can identify specific arousal levels of brain patterns such as being fearful or agitated. To access the zone of optimal performance, arousal levels needs to be moderate and not so high that it interferes with performance.
4. Provides Physical Relief
Hard days at the gym or an extra intensive day on the court can result in muscle and joint aches. Not surprisingly, these pains, sometimes are the culprits behind athletes being up late at night.
Neurofeedback, coupled with BRT (a body biofeedback modality) helps deal with the physical issues like body stiffness, muscle tension due to cramps, and even digestive problems.
BRT and neurofeedback work in tandem to create an ideal synergy that helps athletes relax both mentally and physically. The result is a good night’s sleep while preparing the body and mind for optimum performance.
Alpha Frequency Treatment: A Treatment Protocol of Neurofeedback
The brain emits several waves belonging to different frequency ranges. One such wave is the alpha wave that’s related to alert relaxation. The alpha waves give rise to a calm and pleasant mood, ideal for relaxation and sleep.
Alpha training (a component of neurofeedback training) involves different frequencies addressing specific issues:
a) 9 Hz simulation is for pain relief
b) 10 -30 Hz simulation is for reducing anxiety and stress
Summing it up:
Sleep is an extremely vital factor governing the performance of athletes in crucial games. Athletes often stay up late at night due to stress, anxiety, memories of failure, or even bodily discomforts.
Neurofeedback training sessions help deal with all these factors that prevent sleep. As a result, athletes can calm their minds, on demand, and get to sleep faster and stay asleep.