Have you ever felt so focused on a performance or task that time no longer seemed to matter and you became so absorbed in only the present moment? This is known as flow state, or being “in the zone.”
The flow state occurs when you are actively engaged, challenged, and immersed in the activity you’re performing. We often hear this occurring to artists, surgeons, dancers, writers, tennis players, and other athletes who get “in the zone” and perform at their peak. Being in this flow state allows an athlete to be fully immersed in the present moment to improve their performance, and it can help their mind connect with achieving a goal – whether that be making a free throw, stealing a base, or making a perfect pass. Getting “in the zone” allows them to be focused, relaxed but alert, and be able to block out any mental barriers to performance, such as anxiety or doubt.
So how can you engage your brain to access this flow state and improve sports performance as a result? Training your brain with neurofeedback may be the answer.
In this article we’ll aim to address the question about how neurofeedback might get you “in the zone” and improve your sports performance by covering:
What is Neurofeedback?
Neurofeedback is a type of brain training that uses real-time feedback to enable you to regulate your brain activity. This is typically done through the use of sensors, called electrodes, placed on the head to measure electrical activity in the brain (brainwaves). This electrical activity is associated with your different levels of consciousness, including anxiety, alertness, sleep, or focus, and it can provide insights about your current mental state.
The feedback is provided by visual cues (like a game or video) or through auditory cues (such as music or sound). Meaning that, when your brain is not in the target state, – whether you’re unfocused, anxious, stressed, etc., – the volume may become lower or the images on the screen may become less focused or more difficult to see. On the other hand, if your brain activity is within the right range, the volume may go up, or the screen may become brighter. This allows you to see or hear your brain activity in real-time.
As a result, with practice and consistency, your brain will learn to associate the target brain activity with the reward, thereby regulating it to be in an optimal state – to improve focus, reduce stress and anxiety, and even enhance physical performance.
You can learn more about how neurofeedback works and what to expect from a session here.
How Might Neurofeedback Improve Sports Performance?
Being able to access a flow state and perform at your peak requires more than just physical fitness. This is because most sports rely heavily on mental performance and steady emotions. Indeed, athletes need to be in peak physical performance , but also need to make thousands of split-second decisions which require calmness, clarity, and focus.
So it comes as no surprise that athletes can train with neurofeedback to play at the top of their game. Neurofeedback is used by some professional athletes to help them improve their performance.
For example, in the fourth episode of the Netflix series Quarterback, Minnesota Vikings’ quarterback Kirk Cousins is shown streaming a show on his phone while training his brain with neurofeedback, all while sitting in his car. His mobile screen dims or brightens depending on his brain activity, which allows him to see or hear his brain activity in real time. That's how his brain learns to self-regulate.
As a result of this type of brain training, Kirk is able to elevate his sports performance and improve his wellbeing.
In fact, there are many ways that neurofeedback boosts sports performance, including:
1. Improves Focus and Attention
Being able to stay focused is an important ability as an athlete. Neurofeedback can help improve focus and attention by targeting the brainwaves associated with attention and memory (alpha). It can also help to enhance the brainwaves associated with alertness and focus (beta and gamma) and decrease those slower brain waves related to brain fog and memory difficulties (theta).
2. Improves Self-Control Over Your Mood
The ability to perform well can often be negatively impacted by intense emotions. Neurofeedback can help to regulate mood and emotions by stabilizing dysregulated brain patterns that are often associated with emotions like stress, anxiety and depression. This can help decrease distraction and improve sports performance by making it easier to make high-demand decisions.
3. Decreases Reaction Time
Being able to make split-second decisions and react is a very valuable trait as an athlete. Think of a professional baseball player who is facing down a 95 MPH fastball or chasing down a ball hit deep into the outfield. When do you swing? Do you need to dive to reach the ball? Things can happen in a split second and may require a quick reaction. Training with neurofeedback has been shown to positively impact sports performance by decreasing reaction time and improving the decision-making process.
4. Helps with Balance and Coordination
A great sports performance usually involves good balance and coordination because being able to have control of your body’s movements is essential in performing well while also reducing the risk of injury. Improving both static and dynamic body movements that are required for good coordination and balance is just one of the ways neurofeedback has been found useful in improving sports performance.
5. Improves Sleep Quality
Sleep assists in the body’s ability to repair and grow tissue, bones, and muscle. On the other hand, poor sleep is connected to a decrease in the immune system response. This means that getting good restorative sleep is important for healing injuries, maintaining good health, and being able to perform tasks. Sleep is imperative for athletes to perform well and neurofeedback can help improve that sleep quality. This is done by enhancing slower frequency brain waves, like delta and alpha, to promote relaxation and sleep.
6. Helps with Neuroplasticity and Reducing Cognitive Decline
Neuroplasticity refers to the brain’s ability to change, reorganize, or grow neural networks. These changes can occur during new learning or after recovering from an injury to the brain. Facilitating the connection of new neural networks can potentially reduce cognitive decline. Neurofeedback does this by training people to control their brain activity.
After learning a little about neurofeedback, you might be wondering whether there are any side effects or risks. Like with any training or exercise, neurofeedback does come with side effects, though they are mostly mild and short-lived.
Common side effects of neurofeedback can include:
How to Get Started with Neurofeedback
So how do you know if neurofeedback is right for you? The first step in determining whether neurofeedback meets your needs is to consider what you might want help addressing or improving.
Neurofeedback is a non-invasive intervention that can be used to address a variety of things from focus/attention, anxiety, to improving sports performance, to improving your overall mood and wellbeing.
Once you determine what your needs are, it’s important to consider your provider – the person who will set your program and oversee your training. For example, if you’re looking at neurofeedback in order to become a better athlete, you may want to consider finding a provider who specializes in peak performance and training.
Some other things to consider are cost and time.
1. Cost: Neurofeedback is often not covered by insurance, so you may have to take your financial responsibility into account. The setting you receive neurofeedback in can influence the cost – with in-office training being the most expensive and remote being the least expensive option. Myndlift offers a great, cost-effective remote option that can be completed in the comfort of your own home. You can find out here if this option is right for you.
2. Time: The training sessions can also be a time commitment, as they can require 45 minutes to 1 hour weekly, for several weeks or months. It may be beneficial to determine whether you can dedicate the time to consistent neurofeedback training, as consistency is key to achieving the best results
Just as hitting the gym and exercising the body is crucial for athletic success, having strong attention and focus is equally as important in improving sports performance.
With practice and consistency, brain training with neurofeedback can make you feel strong, powerful, and right where you want to be – in the zone!
Myndlift provides a personalized expert-guided brain training program that can help you achieve your goals towards reaching optimal mental wellbeing. Check if you’re eligible to kick start your journey with us for better brain health from here.
About the author:
Veronica Silver is a former therapist turned mental health/substance abuse writer. Her education and experience helps her write from a place of knowledge and compassion. Her goal is to not only to inform, but to get individuals to connect with the information and resources.
About the reviewer:
Kaija Sander is a cognitive neuroscientist and scientific consultant for Myndlift. She holds a BSc in Biomedical Science with a specialization in Neuroscience and Mental Health from Imperial College London and a PhD in Neuroscience from McGill University. Her doctoral research focused on brain connectivity relating to second language learning success. She is passionate about the broader applications of science to have a positive impact on people’s lives.
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