Updated: Dec 4, 2022
Sports performance and athletic conditioning in the current day and age are not just something that only elite professionals are concerned with. The spread of information about the implications of health on our cognitive and mental life, has motivated much more of the public to become involved with sports and fitness than at any other time in history.
The global gym industry was estimated to be in the $100 billion range in 2020. This doesn’t even take into account the exponential spike in trends like fitness trackers, and the supplement market which adds another $150 billion ticket to the list. Although the Covid-19 pandemic has impacted the revenue of certain parts of the health and fitness industry, it has simultaneously spurred growth in other outlets such as the online and digital space, that many individuals turned to when gyms and fitness facilities had to shut down for some time. Sports and fitness enthusiasts can be found in every demographic, and even authorities from the halls of science and medicine have become outspoken advocates for its role in improving quality of life. Everyone from high performing CEOs, to senior citizens, are now getting on the health trend, as a part of their daily lifestyle.
The universal thing to know about sports and fitness performance is that unlike conventional knowledge may suggest, it is not just about the function of the muscles. Although motor control is essential in moving one’s body, regardless if it is a sports task or not, it is the nervous system that fundamentally controls the physical body. Both voluntary and involuntary processes within the human frame are driven by the brain. Everything from basic organ and gland function, to swinging a golf club, requires the finely calibrated function of the brain.
It is this central role of the brain in executing elite physical skill that many professionals and enthusiasts have undertaken to develop. This is evidenced by the improved treatment of concussions/head injury (TBI) in professional sports, that has been gradually imparted to the rest of the public. TBI has helped modern neuroscience understand the imperative nature of brain health. Like with many other discoveries and innovations, it is usually the peak performers in any field that have access to current developments in technology. This has eventually brought many of the elite performers to undertake training their brains through the application of neurofeedback.
Neurofeedback is a digital method of training sites, circuits, and networks of the brain. By using electrodes that read the electrical signals of the brain, neurofeedback technology allows rewarding and training the same brain sites that are also involved in controlling the physical body. This has been successfully adopted by the likes of the Minnesota Vikings football team, professional golfers like Bryson Dechambau and Blake Adams, as well as US Air Force pilots, who have discovered how neurofeedback has been one of the most significant tools they have ever benefited from.
All athletic and fitness skills are known to be supervised by areas of the brain called the sensory and motor cortices. These are closely related areas of the brain that allow the integration between the sensory information that comes in from the outside, then the subsequent interpretation, construction, and execution of a response. It is highly developed in individuals who have an advanced level of performance in a physical task, even so much so that the brains of professional musicians show more development in the exact areas that correspond to their hands. This is the basic feature of neuroplasticity, which refers to the brain's ability to change its own structure and function in accordance to the demands that it is faced with, and defines the very basis of learning.
Additionally, peak performance involves more than just the sensory and motor cortices. The power of healthy focus, and executive function in general, carry an enormous amount of advantage in sports and fitness, and are governed by the frontal lobes of the brain. The prevalence of ADHD and other attentional disorders are additional factors that impact sports performance. Neurofeedback can be used with spatial precision to reward and train these parts of the brain, with about a 90% documented success rate. ADHD has been one of the most successfully treated disorders in neurorfeedback’s history, and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has even approved a specific EEG brain wave signature as a diagnostic marker.
Equally as likely to have an effect on physical and athletic performance is the presence of any other cognitive or mental dysregulation such as depression, anxiety, epilepsy, PTSD, among others. These pathologies have associations to specific parts of the brain, and give neurofeedback the advantage of targeting its training and development.
What allows neurofeedback to have a positive effect on physical performance is the role that the QEEG (quantitative electroencephalogram) brain map plays in having a clinical-grade assessment of the athlete’s unique brain. A common factor across different cognitive and mental pathologies is that the associated brain areas are either too inhibited (underactive), or too excited (hyperactive). A brain map is the necessary first step to beginning brain training, as the results of the brain map reveal which areas may be either too hyperactive, or too hypoactive. This information allows the athlete to confirm which brain functions are most valid targets to pursue in the neurofeedback course.
The additional advantage an athlete’s brain may inherently have for neurofeedback training, is consistent with the higher than average level of health they tend to posses. The brain is a biological organ, which fundamentally depends on the function of all the other systems of the body. In those who have an advanced physical skill, the brain area/s associated with that skill are already well developed and will therefore have a better ability to respond to training and reinforcement.