By Dave Siever (edited)
In sports, training and physical ‘readiness’ are important, but attitude can be everything. A positive, healthy mind state can give a competitive athlete the edge needed for an outstanding performance. Thoughts of doubt, stress and concerns about failure can have a devastating effect on performance.
It is because of such thoughts that athletes perform well during training and practices but then buckle under the pressure of competition.
Why do athletes experience this performance anxiety? Why don’t years of training instill the confidence and control needed to achieve excellence?
In most sports, what appears to play most on athletes minds is the fact that their performance will be judged relative to other athletes.
Unless an athlete has had the opportunity to develop a healthy attitude towards such comparisons early in life, these can prove incredibly threatening, to the point where they can negatively impact performance.
This happens because, once an athlete has associated anxiety and fear with their performance, then it is almost inevitable that they will develop bracing habits (such as muscle tension, nervousness, vaso-constriction etc.), all of which are a natural response to perceived threat. Bracing serve to impede athletic perfomance.
Like most habits, for most people, bracing habits persist and will require training in order to be removed and replaced by more helpful responses.
Detractors from Excellence
Negative thoughts not only impair athletes striving to perform their best, but they also reduce serotonin levels in the brain. A high level of serotonin is directly linked to superior performance and leadership ability, whereas low serotonin levels affect the athlete’s emotions and thoughts, leading to a less hopeful attitude and a greater tendency to developing a guarding response, not only during the competition, but during training (and in all walks of life, for that matter).
it’s about balance…
Having said this, high arousal can also have its downside. For example, entertaining thoughts of fame and fortune, can produce excessive stimulation which, in turn, may lead to prematurely tiring an athlete. Golfers, tennis players and baseball players can fatigue their fast-twitch muscles in this way before they even begin their game. Fast-twitch muscles are critical for fast movements like swinging a bat, racquet or golf club.
So the key to optimal performance appears to be in achieving balance, that is to say, a level of arousal which lies in the “golden” area between being over and under aroused for an upcoming challenge.
By managing an athlete’s level of arousal so that it stays in this “golden” zone, we are, in effect, managing the chances that they will be in the best possible psychological and physiological position for peak performance when they need it most.
Needless to say, this concept is not limited to sports performance, but applies to all areas of life, whether we’re considering the performing arts, public speaking, acadia or career development.
Look! A Squirrel
The key factor in optimising performance is the ability to concentrate and stay focused.
Figure 1 (below) shows how arousal influences an athletes ability to keep their focus and so perform in the peak-performance state.
There are many stories of normal and “slow” people who suddenly become “super humans” performing acts of heroism in a crisis (as a result of being pushed from the hypo-aroused state into the peak-performance state). But most athletes train in a fairly optimal peak-performance state as it is.
However, on the day of the big event, nearby distractions (such as camera crews, celebrities, crowds, noise and the “big money” excitement of winning), interfere with the athlete’s ability to focus, pushing the athlete’s arousal and attention from the peak-performance state into a hyper-aroused state as shown on the right-hand side of Figure 1. This occurs when the athlete is too physically and mentally “wired” to function in the peak-performance state.
Such over-arousal influences the athlete’s attention, impulsiveness and hyperactivity, behaviour similar to that as seen in people with Attention Deficit Disorder.
Athletic Excellence Through AVE
AVE devices can be very effective in training an athlete to learn to stay focused and control their level of arousal during sporting events.
Figure 2 shows the Skill Development Session that serves the purpose of improving peak performance. This session begins with 10 minutes of alpha stimulation (the flat line on the graph trace), at which time the athlete imagines being at their best on the day of the event, with everything progressing smoothly and effortlessly. This allows the athlete to experience feeling relaxed and calm, yet sharp, clear and prepared.
After ten minutes of alpha, the stimulation rate speeds up to a higher beta frequency, related to alertness.
The relaxation experience from the alpha in the first half of the session is carried over into the remaining half (beta) of the session. It is during this beta stimulation that the athlete imagines going through the motions of the game with confidence and skill.
This session uses the heartbeat sounds for paced breathing and controlled heart rate, as practiced in heart rate variability training, which enhances relaxation.
This conditioning, can help the athlete learn to create a relaxation response instead of anxiety whenever they hear these sounds during the actual event – effectively replacing any previously learnt guarding responses.
Another factor that can interfere with an athlete’s performance is the inability to sleep well the night before a big event.
Using an AVE device a few weeks before the event and imagine falling asleep easily and deeply on the night of the event as if it were any other night helps in this regard.
Because AVE is especially effective with visualising, using the following simple imagery exercise during an AVE session can be particularly helpful:
EX-RAY to Peak Performance
The EX-RAY is a simple 5-minute technique similar to other visualisation techniques used by Olympic athletes.
The exercise allows you to “see” through the blocks of destructive thoughts, conditioned negative responses and associations – and focus instead on success through your creative imagination.
The athlete identifies the exceptional feelings they’ve had during previous events or practice sessions when they performed above their normal level of performance. This can help a peak performer maintain an optimum level of arousal (at the top of the bell curve graph in figure 1) leading to consistent performance at peak level during events when stress is higher.
Away from the athletics field, the EX-RAY exercise can also be used for increasing performance when learning, public speaking, during recitals and perfecting any skill.
The EX-RAY exercise:
E – Think of an Event when your performance was exceptional.
X – Feel the eXceptional feelings and thoughts you had during this event.
R – Recall these exceptional qualities with all of your senses and feelings.
A – Allow these exceptional qualities from the exceptional event to fill your body and mind as you apply them to the new event you are about to become part of.
Y – Say YES!!! as you see through your obstacles and feel your success in the upcoming event that you have just witnessed in your mind.
Repeat this process as often as needed. For increased effectiveness use EX-RAY along with the AVE skill development session. When the session speeds up (after about 10 minutes), visualise doing the actions of the actual event until the session ends.
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About the source material:
This blog post is abased on an article writen by Dave Siever, in his occassional ‘Tech Talk’ series, which is published by Mind Alive. It has been edited for length and style by staff of the Peak Health Online library; published here on 16th February, 2019