What's the ideal state of mind for an Olympic trapshooter taking aim at a clay pigeon as it whizzes by at 62 miles per hour? Psychologist Paul Mahoney, PhD, traveled to Malaysia last summer with a bag of electroencephalography (EEG) equipment to find out.
Mahoney, then a graduate student at the University of Southern Queensland in Australia, and his adviser Peter Terry, PhD, taped electrodes to the heads of Malaysia's top trapshooters and measured their brains' electrical activity during practice. But does gathering such information--and training athletes to consciously alter their brain activity--work?
"Sticking sensors to athletes' heads is cool, sexy and fun, but the research at the moment isn't sufficient," says David Vernon, PhD, a psychology professor at Canterbury Christ Church University, in England.
So far, only one published article, a 1991 study in Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise (Vol. 22, No. 1), supports the idea. Arizona State University kinesthesiologist Dan Landers, PhD, and his colleagues conditioned 24 right-handed archers to increase fast, "alpha-wave" activity in their brains' right or left hemispheres immediately before taking a shot. To do this, the researchers wired up the athletes and showed them bars that corresponded to their right and left hemisphere brain activity. After about an hour of training, the archers learned to raise or lower the bars merely by thinking.
The archers who increased alpha activity in their right hemispheres improved their performances, while those who increased left-hemisphere activity saw their accuracy decline. That may be because the right hemisphere is involved with simultaneous processing and spatial relations, while the left handles sequential thinking and language, Landers says.
"When you start to perform, you have to let the right hemisphere take over," Landers says. "You don't have time to overanalyze. It all has to come together at once."
Another as-yet-unpublished study by Mahoney finds that different athletes may need different neurofeedback training. In his work with the Malaysian trapshooters, Mahoney found that some athletes showed alpha activity just before a successful shot while others displayed slower waveforms. Those who excelled with more alpha-wave activity may have needed to be more alert while aiming, while the athletes who performed well with slower waveforms may have benefited from a more meditative state.
So, Mahoney and Terry trained the athletes to replicate the brain activity associated with their best shots. The shooters improved their accuracy and reported better concentration, says Mahoney. However, he notes, the neurofeedback was part of the shooters' regular practice, rather than a controlled study, so any aspect of their training could account for the improvement.
That said, sport psychologists who use EEG are increasingly in demand, Mahoney says.
"A number of different sporting organizations in Australia are starting to incorporate it, and so is the World Cup-winning Italian soccer team," he notes. "It's quite an exciting new field."
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