How lower alpha neurological levels indicate higher performance levels in athletes

Athletes need to train, and they need to train to win.To maximize the benefits of their training, players need to know when their cognitive states are not only most receptive but also fatigued. This can be a bit tricky, however, since athletes aren’t always in tune with their cognitive states. Oftentimes they can have difficulty in knowing when they are overtraining because they are either used to mental fatigue and think being at that level is normal, or they want success so badly that they work through it despite the negative effects.

Pushing oneself to the limit is a great attitude to have during a match but, during training, it’s best to coordinate optimal cognitive states with training. Much research has gone into investigating which brain states are linked to optimized training in order to help athletes reach those levels better. Studies have shown that increased frontal theta waves indicate that a player is concentrating on an athletic move they are about to execute. Research has also shown that when a player is fatigued, alpha levels increase, which could indicate deactivation in the sensory and motor brain regions. Because of this, an increase in alpha levels can be an early sign of cognitive fatigue, even if the body physically doesn’t feel like it needs to rest, and therefore it can be used as a metric to help prevent athletes from overtraining.

Optimizing an athlete’s training is of course important, but what’s especially important is for them to use their training during a match. Therefore, it is important for athletes to know how to be in the right state of mind when they need to win. Just like how high alpha levels indicate fatigue, a number of studies have shown a correlation with decreased alpha levels being linked to elite athletes performing tasks that require high attention and precision. One of them was when golfers demonstrated more success in putting when their alpha levels were decreased in the frontal region of the brain as well as the medial part, which is associated with motor control. These studies together indicate that there is a characteristic signature of high performance relaxation, especially when compared to untrained athletes whose levels are much higher when performing the same athletic tasks. 

Since elite athletes use less neural activity for the same task as novices, trainers want to teach their athletes to reach these states regardless of if they are novices or professionals. One way some researchers have done this was through daily 45-minutes audio-visual relaxation sessions over a period of 7 months. Athletes showed a correlation between decreased alpha levels and longer rates of training ability, while having higher levels of energy, and showing improvements in performance.

Because of this, it’s very important for coaches of all sports to know what cognitive states their players are in. If coaches can monitor their athletes’ alpha levels, they can plan better training sessions that are synchronized with if the athletes’ mental state is best for more exercise or rest. Combined with relaxation sessions that help athletes reach lower alpha levels, a new training paradigm could be adopted that uses the most optimized training experience, so that athletes can reach their best performance level.

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2Gwin, Joseph T., et al. “Removal of movement artifact from high-density EEG recorded during walking and running.” Journal of neurophysiology 103.6 (2010): 3526-3534.

3Strizhkova, Olga, Larisa Cherapkina, and Tatiana Strizhkova. “Neurofeedback course applying of high skilled gymnasts in competitive period.” (2012).

4Babiloni, Claudio, et al. “Golf putt outcomes are predicted by sensorimotor cerebral EEG rhythms.” The Journal of physiology 586.1 (2008): 131-139.

5Shelley-Tremblay, John F., John D. Shugrue, and John P. Kline. “Changes in EEG Laterality Index Effects of Social Inhibition on Putting in Novice Golfers.” Journal of Sport Behavior 29.4 (2006).